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Under new leadership, Phoenix takes on Mahler and Schreker

Led by music director Joshua Weilerstein, the chamber orchestra revived its Prime series on Thursday night at the Artists for Humanity EpiCenter

Conductor Joshua Weilerstein, recently named as music director of Phoenix, leads members of the ensemble on Thursday night at the Artists for Humanity EpiCenter.Sam Brewer/Phoenix

Chamber orchestras in Boston tend to come and go. Many are founded by recent conservatory graduates, and their youthful energies and idealism often delight their loyal audiences. But sustaining these groups practically speaking in an expensive city is a more difficult task. Metamorphosen and the Discovery Ensemble no longer exist. Palaver Strings has moved to Portland, Maine. A Far Cry’s longevity and established track record is the exception to the rule.

Then there is Phoenix, which has proven pluckier than most. Founded in 2014 by New England Conservatory graduates, it has been deft at building community partnerships and seeking out new audiences by venturing beyond the typical places you’d expect to find classical music. In 2017, for instance, Phoenix became the ensemble in residence at the Aeronaut brewery in Somerville. And more recently, it has announced a new partnership with NEC, an arrangement that will hopefully provide the group with essential local anchoring.


In addition to the NEC alliance, this year also brought the arrival of Phoenix’s new music director, the impressive young conductor Joshua Weilerstein. While pursuing graduate work at NEC back in 2009, Weilerstein won the Malko conducting competition and not long afterward was appointed an assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic, which in turn jumpstarted a busy international conducting career.

Weilerstein’s first concert with Phoenix took place in March at Jordan Hall, and on Thursday night, he and the ensemble resuscitated the group’s signature Prime series of concerts at unconventional venues. This time it was the Artists for Humanity EpiCenter, a vast and airy gallery-like space with the audience seated jazz club-style at tables, many of them sipping beer, wine, or cocktails.

The group opened with two movements (a Scherzo and Intermezzo) by Franz Schreker, an early 20th-century Austrian composer known in his day primarily for his operas. After his death in 1934, Schreker’s reputation suffered for his being, in Mahlerian parlance, twice homeless: his opulent late-Romantic music had no place among modernist gospels of dissonance, and his part-Jewish ancestry had no place among Nazi visions of the Aryan state. That double stigma had enduring effects on Schreker’s posthumous fortunes, and only in the last 20 years has his music been emerging from the shadows.


On Thursday, Weilerstein and the Phoenix players triumphed over echoey acoustics and served up a highly persuasive, atmospheric performance of these two inventive movements from around 1900. Despite the music’s harmonic richness, Weilerstein eschewed the temptation of ponderous tempos and the Phoenix playing was polished and articulate throughout.

The evening’s main event, however, was a chamber orchestra arrangement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. This composer’s well-earned reputation for orchestral enormity might make the prospect of a chamber version of his symphonies seem like pure folly, or at least destined to produce only a pale imitation of the real thing. Happily, neither was the case on Thursday.

One naturally missed the power and heft of Mahler’s massed sonorities, but this chamber version spoke with a focused clarity and textural transparency that allowed the ear to make connections sometimes obscured by the elemental grandeur of the original. Weilerstein led throughout with an appealing combination of economy and conviction, and a sure sense for this music’s complex layerings. Despite an occasional balance issue or passing blurriness of intonation, this was a vibrant and compelling performance. As vocal soloist, soprano Helen Zhibing Huang sang with nimbleness and tonal warmth.


Between works and at times between movements, Weilerstein spoke to the audience about the music, deploying the easygoing yet informative style he has honed in his popular classical podcast “Sticky Notes.” Overall, he and Phoenix seem very well-matched, and one looks forward to watching this new partnership evolve. From this listener’s perspective, a city can never have too many chamber orchestras.


Joshua Weilerstein, conductor

At: Artists for Humanity EpiCenter, Thursday night

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.