Dina rudick/globe staff/file 2009
John Harbison (pictured last year) led Emmanuel Music in the second half of Saturday’s concert. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/File 2009)
When Craig Smith, Emmanuel Music’s founder, passed away in 2007, the group was steered through the difficult aftermath by two long-time colleagues: acting artistic director John Harbison and associate conductor Michael Beattie. With a new chapter in Emmanuel’s history set to open next season under Ryan Turner, Saturday’s orchestral concert — which featured both Beattie and Harbison on the podium — put a vibrant and beautifully constructed bookend to the interim.
Emmanuel has devoted this season to two great Viennese composers: Haydn and Schoenberg. The concert opened with the latter’s “Accompaniment to a Cinematic Scene,’’ film music for a film that never existed. It’s a sequence of moods leading from premonition to catastrophe, all captured in music that balances astringent, 12-tone harmony with unexpectedly beautiful melodies. The piece had a marvelous sense of transparency, thanks to the reduced string contingent and to Beattie’s graceful and secure conducting.
Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante for a quartet of soloists and orchestra offered a chance to showcase four instrumentalists from Emmanuel’s ranks: violinist Danielle Maddon, cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, oboist Peggy Pearson, and bassoonist Thomas Stephenson. The piece is enjoyable without being top-drawer Haydn. Of the soloists, the winds made the stronger impression, while the two string players had occasional trouble projecting.
Harbison took the stage for the second half, which began with Schoenberg’s landmark Five Pieces for Orchestra in a rarely played arrangement for 11 instruments (strings, winds, piano, and harmonium). This was a revelation: Stripped of its exotic instrumental dressing, Schoenberg’s weighty score takes on a posture of unusual immediacy, as if the composer were opening his bag of secrets and bringing a listener inside. The third piece was the most radically changed: its colors, murky and dense in the original, now glinted brightly on the surface.
This version is eminently worth revisiting, both for the comparative ease of arranging a performance and for the fresh light it throws on an almost-canonical masterpiece. But it would be hard to top this performance, which was brilliantly played and expertly led by Harbison.
To close the evening, Harbison chose Haydn’s Symphony No. 70. It is not a well-known symphony, which only makes more astonishing its surfeit of treasures: tricky rhythms, intricate counterpoint, an unexpectedly austere trio, and a finale that’s alternately solemn and teasing. If this sounds severe or overly learned, it isn’t, thanks to Haydn’s ever-present mix of wit and buoyancy.
The lengthy ovation at the end was undoubtedly not just for the performances, which were eminently deserving, but for the two conductors and their service to an organization in its time of need.