Five years of Philadelphia Orchestra free neighborhood concerts in Camden culminated ambitiously Friday night, not with a typical pop-in, pop-out program of classics but with a world premiere piece that galvanized audiences for what it symbolized as well as for what it is.
Kabo Omowale (Welcome Home Child), the title of a collaboration by narrator Charlotte Blake Alston and composer Andrea Clearfield, crowded the Gordon Theater stage on the Rutgers University campus not just with the orchestra under Rossen Milanov and the Camden Community Choir, but with a plethora of ideas and references that hadn't entirely jelled.
But the nature of the occasion was such that the noble intentions behind it all easily won the day.
The orchestra's education and outreach efforts have made particular attempts at meaningful interaction with the neighborhoods being visited, particularly in Camden. This year, it took the form of Alston and Clearfield working with the Linden Elders Center, which exists to keep the elderly active and current with the world. Numerous visitors there shared with the Kabo Omowale creators their concerns about future generations, from the standpoint of those who have seen young people come and, often tragically, go.
Some of their poems, conversations and childhood games, plus the African custom of whispering a baby's name into its ear before it is spoken aloud by anyone else, came into play in the formation of a thick, eventful text molded by Alston, a frequently featured storyteller in Philadelphia Orchestra special occasion concerts and an artist of considerable social awareness.
The similarly alert Clearfield has a considerable history of handling large-scale choral and orchestral forces that are a forum for social issues but also have artistic texture that gives them staying power.
These ingredients alone - with the formidable Alston narrating and the Linden Elders Center participants sitting in the front row - inevitably inspired a heartening sense of ownership among audience members from the New Jersey side of the river.
The juxtaposition of African village customs with the urban world of Camden had great resonance, suggesting that thriving in 21st-century America is possible when what seem like quaint ethnic roots supply the human spirit with a compass that is needed more than ever.
That the music's broadly drawn strokes touched emotional bases as only music can was bound to make the audience jump up and cheer at the end. And it did.
Clearfield's music gave a natural speech rhythm to the sung text with just enough of the rhetoric that it deserved, but her orchestral writing was where the piece really lived. All kinds of resourcefully molded effects were popping out around the piece's choral exclamations, with frequent references to popular and ethnic music and things that existed to tease the ear into sustained listening.
Overall, the piece didn't begin to feel complete and seemed to be the beginning of something larger, something that could be far more powerful if it went beyond the text's aphorisms and developed ideas that seemed only touched upon. The text reads powerfully on the page, but has passages that come off arty and oblique onstage, and go by so quickly that you can't begin to hear them in the piece's larger context. Periodically, the text leaped into the inevitable life tragedies ahead with a succession of multisyllabic words that seemed to bounce out of nowhere with little of their intended impact.
By the time the piece ended with the names of the Linden participants reverently intoned, you knew that only a smallish portion of the experience enjoyed by Alston and Clearfield made it into the piece, or (considering the vagaries of a world premiere performance) onto the Gordon Theater stage.
Saying that Kabo Omowale needs revision and expansion isn't so much a criticism as a request for wider opportunities.