So far so good with the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, which concluded its first season Saturday at Temple University's Baptist Temple, with an impressive standard of performance - the most important element - but much uncertainty over translating its alternative sensibility into effective programming.
The first half had founder/music director Jeri Lynne Johnson conducting mostly American music; the second half was a set by the Rodney Mack Philadelphia Big Brass. The connection wasn't obscure: Mack was the first-half soloist, while Johnson conducted some of the more classical pieces on the second half. Pacing and substance are, if anything, more crucial in a program that's not anchored in any of the usual symphonic cornerstones. And while the program was admirably enterprising, it only worked intermittently.
The "Hoedown" passage from Aaron Copland's Rodeo was in the opening overture slot (great idea) followed by that composer's meditative Quiet City tone poem, which could have killed the momentum had the performance been typical. But it wasn't. Instead of suggesting some semi-deserted Edward Hopper-esque urban landscape, this performance had sharper contours with a sense of tension that was out in the open rather than under the surface. This was unquiet 21st-century Philadelphia – an approach that completely worked on its own terms, thanks to a smart collaboration by Mack and Johnson. However, Ellis Marsalis' Fourth Autumn, nice as it is, slowed down the sequence of pieces and killed what might have been an effective transition to George Walker's excellent Lyric for Strings and Ernst Bloch's great Concerto Grosso No. 1, which closed the first half in a tough, tight, contrapuntally centered performance.
The after-intermission brass set was a grab bag that was ultimately satisfying with a knockout etched-in-metal transcription of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 (final movement) and the Michael Jackson hit "Billie Jean," whose famous bass line was the bedrock of a hotly competitive jam. Previous to that, the set meandered, with Mack's playing a transcription of a Bach sarabande that proved little more than the fact that it could be done, the "Nimrod" section from Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations and the inconsequential Phoenix Polka by Francis Johnson. Between-song patter had classroom-cutup insouciance that wasn't as charming as it wanted to be and gave a false impression of disorganization. Philadelphia has far better comedians in other venues, but few cities have a lineup of brass players that's better than this. Where's the logical point of focus? Just because the Canadian Brass does this sort of thing doesn't mean anybody else should.
The Baptist Temple is turning out to be a splendid venue with a bright, immediate acoustic. But some bugs are still being worked out. Latecomers were noisily seated while music was being played. A recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons was heard over the sound system during intermission - which functions to give your ears a break from music.