By David Weininger, Globe Correspondent | June 5, 2009
John Harbison (left) has acted as artistic director of Emmanuel Music since the death in 2007 of Craig Smith, who founded the group in 1970 and planned the last two years' programs. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/File 2008)
From its creation in 1970, Emmanuel Music has been associated inextricably with the artistic spirit of its founder, Craig Smith. Even after Smith's death, in 2007, his influence has lingered. The organization's last two seasons had been planned by Smith prior to his passing.
With its 2009-10 season, announced earlier this week, Emmanuel is emerging from its founder's shadow. The season is the first to have been designed by the group's interim leadership: acting artistic director John Harbison and associate conductor Michael Beattie. They have focused on a pair of very different Viennese composers in Joseph Haydn and Arnold Schoenberg. Music from each will figure into Emmanuel's two evening concerts and the six concerts of its chamber series. It represents a shift away from the music of Bach, which has been the locus of much of the group's energies over the last two seasons.
Speaking by phone from his summer home in Wisconsin earlier this week, Harbison explained that the choice was influenced by personal preference. "It was partly that I'm there one more year, and these are two of my favorite composers. I've spent a lot of time with them." He and Emmanuel colleagues also liked the fact that this was a compact survey that could be carried out in one year, in contrast to the multiyear cycles devoted to a single composer that the group has favored in the past.
Asked what the two composers share, Harbison answered, "These are the ones that every composer had to take account of. I can't think of any music after Haydn that doesn't have to react somehow to what he discovered. And Schoenberg's vocabulary, whether people are warm to his music, is the most important reexamination of how we hear concert music since Haydn."
The first of the two evening concerts (Nov. 14) is centered on the Genesis story. It is anchored by Haydn's great oratorio "The Creation," with Emmanuel's chorus and orchestra and a roster of familiar soloists. Preceding it on the program is Schoenberg's orchestral prelude to a suite on the Biblical creation story jointly composed by seven emigre composers living in Los Angeles in the 1940s.
The second concert (April 17) mixes Schoenberg's "Accompaniment to a Film Scene" and Five Pieces for Orchestra (arranged for chamber ensemble) with Haydn's infrequently played Sinfonia Concertante and Symphony No. 70. Harbison was surprised that here, as elsewhere in the season, the Haydn selections are more likely than the Schoenberg to be the rarities.
The chamber series is divided into two sequences of Sunday concerts. The first, in October and November, mixes vocal and chamber works from both composers. The second sequence, in April and May, combines Schoenberg's complete piano music with sonatas by Haydn. These three concerts will be played by Russell Sherman, a longtime Emmanuel associate.
Though Bach is no longer the main focus, he will hardly disappear from Emmanuel Music's activities in the coming season. As is longtime practice, one of the composer's cantatas will be heard at each Sunday service at Emmanuel Church. A new tradition that will continue is the sequence of free noontime concerts in the intimate Lindsey Chapel during the Lenten season. Having presented Bach's solo music for violin and cello in previous seasons, the group now moves to his six Partitas for keyboard, with Beattie opening the series on Feb. 18 with the Third and Robert Levin closing it on March 25 with the Sixth.
Other events include a season-opening benefit concert at Scullers Jazz Club, on Sept. 16, featuring a new collection of jazz-flavored songs by Harbison; and a Good Friday performance of the St. Luke Passion by Heinrich Schuttz on April 2.
"Whatever happens with Emmanuel, it will be in many ways different," Harbison said, reflecting on the group's future and relation to its traditions. "The healthiest thing that could happen, I think, is that it goes on as identifiably itself and identifiably something fresh."
Pat Krol, Emmanuel's executive director, says that a search for a permanent music director is ongoing, with an announcement expected next spring. Tickets for the season's concerts go on sale June 18.