By Pete Prown
Conductor James Freeman is familiar to admirers of Swarthmore College’s resident ensemble Orchestra 2001 (which he founded and served for 27 years as artistic director), but on Sunday, he brought his latest classical venture to Lang Concert Hall, the Chamber Orchestra First Editions. This ensemble serves to contrast the early work of Mozart with edgy contemporary music in a manner that’s both aurally pleasing and educational. In addition to performing full chamber pieces here, Freeman had his musicians play brief sections to highlight facets of each composition — something of a “behind the scenes” glimpse into the writing process.
The 25-piece Chamber Orchestra began with a reading of Mozart’s first symphony, Symphony in E flat major, K.16, composed in 1764 when the Austrian was just eight years old. While we’re used to the bold, jarring sounds of Orchestra 2001, it was a revelation to hear warm, lush sounds of 18th-century European music wafting through this space. A little more volume would have been welcome, but that’s quibbling. The interpretation of this early classical-era work was rapturous, something accentuated by the cathedral-like vista of Crum Woods behind the musicians.
Next Mr. Freeman introduced composers Cynthia Folio and Heidi Jacob, whom he commissioned to write short chamber pieces for the occasion. A professor at Temple University, Ms. Folio based her Pentaprism on a 5-note motif, which she used to develop themes and countermelodies within the music. The composition was fun and zigzagging in rollicking 20th-century style, but then the fine players of the chamber orchestra delivered a middle section that was tense and cinematic, more akin to the twisting Hitchcockian harmonies of film composer Bernard Herrmann. Under Freeman’s baton, Folio balances jagged abstractions with these more melodic passages, and quite elegantly, too.
Heidi Jacob, a professor at Haverford College, debuted Many in One, inspired by a Walt Whitman poem. The piece juxtaposed brief solo performances — such as Miles B. Davis’s double bass melody line — with larger ensemble work by this “collective” of musicians, as she puts it. With Freeman at the helm, the piece was moody and haunting in the dim afternoon light of the concert hall. Its high point came near the end when several 1st and 2nd violinists began tossing melodic phrases back and forth, creating a mesmerizing natural-stereo effect across the stage and out into the audience. It was a clever maneuver that caught listeners off-guard and drew them instantly into the performance.
After intermission, maestro Freeman brought out the acclaimed pianist Charles Abramovic to perform Mozart’s beloved Piano Concerto in E flat major. With his keyboard virtuosity rippling through the air of Lang Hall with superb accompaniment from the musicians (including several students from area colleges), it was hard not to appreciate the larger context of the moment. Not only did the audience enjoy wonderful music, new and old, but it was all presented on a quiet winter afternoon for free. As the lights went up and applause subsided, we were already looking forward to future concerts from the superb Chamber Orchestra First Editions.
NOTE: First Editions will reprise this program in a performance tonight (Friday, February 26) at 7:30 p.m. at Haverford College’s Roberts Hall.
Writer, author, and critic Pete Prown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.