The tales of musical wunderkinds like Mozart and Mendelssohn are legion. But early success can sometimes cast shadows over composers who got a late start with large-scale works. Brahms was well into his forties when he completed his Symphony No. 1, and Ralph Vaughan Williams didn’t finish his Sea Symphony until he reached the age of 38.

When it came to symphonies, John Harbison was a late bloomer as well. By the time he wrote his own Symphony No. 1 in 1980 at the age of 42, he had developed a mature voice through a number of successful chamber scores.

Written for the centennial of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Harbison’s First Symphony remains the most popular of his six works in the genre. There have been scattered local performances of it recent years.

Conductor Richard Pittman and the New England Philharmonic presented the work in celebration of the composer’s coming 80th birthday (December 20) Saturday night at Jordan Hall, and the symphony took on fresh, youthful vigor. Harbison was on hand for the event and wryly stated in introductory remarks prior to the performance, “I’m always interested to hear what this symphony still has to offer.”

With its mix of jazzy rhythms, dark orchestral colors, and overall Bachian seriousness, Harbison’s Symphony No. 1 offers surprises with each new hearing. This ear-tingling work runs the gamut from cold, declamatory statements to zesty dance rhythms in its twenty-four-minute span.

Like other composers who came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Harbison employs the kind of dense, dissonant sonorities popularized by Schoenberg and Boulez. Yet Harbison’s brash harmonies are never ends in themselves, and listeners are taken on an emotional journey in this symphony that is by turns atmospheric and dramatic.

In Saturday’s reading, Pittman emphasized the stabbing chords of the opening before deftly steering the orchestra through Harbison’s knotty textures. All the while, the music coursed with energy as the intricate rhythms churned and ultimately released tension in gleaming cadences.

The brief second movement is a scherzo, and Pittman mined the humor by drawing attention to crackling wind figures. In the third section, the orchestra’s lush string tone painted a sublime musical landscape. The only performance lapse came in the finale, where the tricky, multi-layered lines failed to pulse with requisite vitality. But the performance grew stronger as the movement progressed, and Pittman opened the throttle so that the final stinging chords brought this engaging symphony to an exciting conclusion.

The concert’s opener, Lachlan Skipworth’s Spiritus, was just as enticing.

Spiritus, which won the NEP’s Call for Scores competition this past season, depicts the coastal wind and weather of Skipworth’s native Australia. Saturday’s American premiere surrounded listeners with eerie sounds. Lasting about fourteen minutes, Spiritus calls for wind players to blow air through their instruments for obvious effect. The strings engage in glassy slides and whistle tones to accompany.

Yet Skipworth’s music never results in mere gestures or cliché. His score is organic, and the sounds of the wind gradually take on a melodic shape that rises above the thick, thorny harmonies. It ends in a whisper, and concertmaster Danielle Maddon’s amber-tone violin solo, which draws Spiritus to a close, provided a bucolic highlight. Pittman’s robust reading made a strong case for this thoughtful and vivid music.

After intermission, Pittman led the orchestra and Commonwealth Chorale in Rachmaninoff’s The Bells.

Though Rachmaninoff referred to it as his best effort, this stunning and underrated choral symphony is rarely heard in live performance. In Saturday’s welcome revival, the New England Philharmonic found every nuance of phrasing in the rolling waves of the Rachmaninoff’s orchestration. The Jordan Hall acoustic brought an additional dimension to the orchestra’s sound, and together the musicians, many of who are non-professionals, played with the polish of a professional ensemble. The strings took on enveloping warmth in the second movement, and Deanna Dawson’s English horn solo brought sweet melancholy to the finale.

Singing Fanny S. Copeland’s English retranslation (of Konstantin Balmont’s Russian version of Poe’s original poem), the evening’s soloists and chorus delivered phrases of power and conviction. Tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan sang “The Silver Sleigh Bells” with aptly ringing tone and smooth diction. Soprano Sarah Pelletier floated graceful but resonant lines in “The Mellow Wedding Bells.” The standout was baritone David Kravitz, whose voice took on palpable Russian heft in “The Mournful Iron Bells.”

Prepared by David Carrier, the Commonwealth Chorale, intoned the music’s difficult rising and falling lines with a delicate and tender expression and fluent balances.

Richard Pittman will lead the New England Philharmonic in music by Copland, Hoffer, and Vores 3 p.m. December 2 at the Tsai Performance Center. nephilharmonic.org

 

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