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In Philadelphia Orchestra world premiere, Valerie Coleman-Sonia Sanchez collaboration anchors remarkable night

The program featured two world premieres, and a chance to reconsider one of the great American works for voice and orchestra.

Composer Valerie Coleman with daughter Lisa Page and soprano Angel Blue after the world premiere of Coleman's orchestral song This Is Not a Small Voice by the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin, Feb. 3, 2022, in Verizon Hall.
Composer Valerie Coleman with daughter Lisa Page and soprano Angel Blue after the world premiere of Coleman's orchestral song This Is Not a Small Voice by the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin, Feb. 3, 2022, in Verizon Hall.Read morePete Checchia

Works of art don’t always keep still once they’re down on the page or up on the wall. Sometimes they talk among themselves, and if you listen carefully, you can hear their meaning changing just a little bit.

Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 emerged Saturday night in a performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra absolutely unchanged in one way. It is still one of the greatest works for voice and orchestra. That’s a good enough reason all by itself to put it on a program.

But it was paired with a new piece: an orchestral song by Valerie Coleman set to the Sonia Sanchez poem This Is Not a Small Voice. And while these two views of childhood are worlds apart — one idyllic and white, the other an energetic statement of Black resilience — it was striking to feel the pull of one work on the other.

Knoxville isn’t tension-free, to be sure, but it does mostly roll out in warm, reassuring waves. Coleman’s work, though, coming right after the Barber, retroactively changed my view of Knoxville and the James Agee text to which it is set. Maybe, even before this concert, the piece and its particular nostalgic view of America had begun to change in the minds of some of us who already knew it well. The pairing emphasized not just the privilege written into the Barber, but also its depiction of the inner tension of a child concerned with nothing less than the central mystery of existence.

Soprano Angel Blue seemed to note that angst in her interpretation. The song ends with a line that says despite being “well-beloved,” the child knows that those around him “will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.”

When Blue sang the words I am, she dug into them with an emotional edge that sent shivers.

This was a remarkable Philadelphia Orchestra program in more than that one aspect. It brought two world premieres, plus the subscription debut of the work that made Florence Price, in 1933, the first Black woman to have a work played by a major American orchestra — her Symphony No. 1.

In remarks to Saturday’s Verizon Hall audience, music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin said the program was about amplifying voices. I can’t recall any other Philadelphia Orchestra evening in which there were four works, all feeling so urgent.

What’s more, Saturday’s performances were tighter and even more incisive than Thursday’s, which I also heard. (On Friday afternoon, Blue was feeling ill, and so the Coleman and Barber were replaced at that concert with Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins).

The Price symphony sounds more authoritative every time the orchestra plays it, and on Saturday, the quiet moments of the first movement were so expertly realized, they emerged as some of the most unusual sounds in any symphony. This is the value of having as advocate an ensemble as polished as the Philadelphia Orchestra.

This is not a small voice

you hear this is a large

voice coming out of these cities.

This is the voice of LaTanya.

Kadesha. Shaniqua.

This Is Not a Small Voice comes from a collection of poems published in 1995, though the poet and composer spoke at length as part of the project’s process. Coleman could have pulled any number of word cues, any number of meanings, from Sanchez’s poem. The Philadelphia poet writes of love — her poem mentions it repeatedly — and the score mirrors the feeling beautifully.

Coleman is long known to Philadelphians, most recently for Seven O’Clock Shout, the orchestra’s anthem to pandemic frontline workers. This new piece, commissioned by the orchestra, has Coleman’s trademark radiant energy. It is both potent and economical. When Blue shouts the names of the children, the orchestral music is optimistic, and when the text speaks of mending children with love, Coleman responds with what it sounds like to wrap your arms around these children. There are subtleties and complexities in the score that cry out for repeated performances. One is imminent. The orchestra takes it to Carnegie Hall Tuesday night.

An aside: Isn’t it time for Coleman to have a titled position with the orchestra?

The program’s second world premiere came by way of Nézet-Séguin’s other post, as music director of the Metropolitan Opera. Matthew Aucoin’s Suite from Eurydice was condensed from the opera premiered by Los Angeles Opera in 2020 and done at the Met in 2021, and it tells the Orpheus and Eurydice myth from Eurydice’s perspective.

Aucoin is a gifted storyteller, even absent the opera’s Sarah Ruhl libretto. Consider this musical sequence: the sound of soaring freedom followed by a pulsing insistence. Repeated Brahms-like gestures. A grinding journey, like some kind of crucible. Then a big wind-down of energies. All that comes in the first five or so minutes.

The one-movement suite is marked in four sections, each with its own subtitle, though the musical arc works without knowing this. And though the score may have originated in the opera house, my mind kept going to a different frame of reference: the best kind of video game soundtrack, deliciously dark and bellicose. It was also convincingly otherworldly, a sure sign of orchestral forces etched and shaded by an imaginative hand.

Additional performance: Tuesday at 8 p.m. at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Tickets are $21-$128., 212-247-7800.