When James Freeman founded an orchestra to play new music 21 years ago, it was his wry joke to name it Orchestra 2001. The new millennium seemed impossibly distant, and the chances of such an orchestra's lasting much more than a year made the name a mixture of hubris and self-delusion.
Now with his orchestra rich in achievement and him past his 70th birthday, Freeman was showered with gifts by seven composers Sunday in a gaudy fete at Swarthmore's Lang Concert Hall, where Orchestra 2001 has its home.
Birthday honors, which in some settings mean red velvet and ermine, mean rolled-up sleeves for musicians. How else can a musician mark a birthday except by performing, and, to mock the passage of time, performing something brand new?
Freeman's birthday honors saw the conductor leave his baton at home in order to appear as pianist, bass player, and the program's eighth composer.
The other seven, whose work has been showcased by Orchestra 2001, wrote pieces ranging from David Finko's hilarious Glory to the King to George Crumb's Sun and Shadow, five settings of Lorca texts. None was commissioned - who has that kind of money? To Freeman's astonishment, all contributed their work. "Can you believe it?" he asked from the stage.
Andrew Rudin proposed the event in June and set the project in motion by offering his Celebrations to honor Freeman's 70th and Crumb's 80th. The orchestra board then asked Crumb, Jay Reise, Andrea Clearfield, Thomas Whitman, and Gerald Levinson to ice the cake. As the event took shape, Freeman decided to include his student composition, Three Songs From the '60s. "They had been in a drawer for 45 years," he said. "I thought that if I was ever going to hear them, it probably should be now."
This cast of characters was not random. A survey of Orchestra 2001 programs shows Freeman has dedicated the orchestra to many local composers. Some are Philadelphians, some have a Swarthmore connection, some are significant world figures. His closeness with Crumb has led to premieres of Crumb's "American Songbooks," composed over seven years, and mainly sung by his daughter, Ann.
It has not been a parochial dedication. His programming has included 90 world premieres, 120 area premieres; among the works of 125 composers listed are such 20th- century classics as Pierrot Lunaire, the local premiere of Pierre Boulez's Le Marteau sans Maitre, a season-long exploration of Ligeti's works, and a cheeky premiere of Milton Babbitt's Transfigured Notes. That piece, commissioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra for the bicentennial of the Constitution, had defeated the efforts of three conductors to perform it. Freeman's orchestra put it together, played it, and won the composer's approval.
On Sunday, Freeman could comfortably look his gift horses in the mouth. The music was substantial, vigorous, often charming. Rudin's Celebrations was played by pianists Marcantonio Barone and Freeman with percussionist Anthony Orlando. The first movement, dark and mysterious, honored Crumb; the second, a spirited dash, had Freeman's name on it. The percussion writing intensified, deepened, and boldly colored the work. Orlando's eloquence with marimba and xylophone, his shadings with drums large and small, set off the bold piano deeds.
The Crumb songs, performed by Ann Crumb and Barone, balanced her evocative voice with notes plucked inside the piano, sudden metallic attacks, and even a fist on the keyboard. The soprano sometimes spoke in these darkly atmospheric pieces, which rank with the best of Crumb's catalog of songs.
Reise, retiring chairman of the orchestra's board, set Freeman to the piano in his Watching, a clear-eyed work that has the gift of inevitability as the pianist finds expressive sounds at the keyboard and in plucking strings.
Freeman played bass in Clearfield's A reminiscence sing. Soprano Tamara Matthews told Freeman that he had made her a better musician, then sang Walt Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking . . . " with four other strings and English horn played by Freeman's wife, Dorothy. Cleanly constructed, the music flows and sways, the soprano line taking on a glow from the ensemble.
Thomas Whitman contributed Midsummer Idyll, for piano and oboe d'amore, basing a melody on notes suggested by Freeman's name and played by Freeman and his wife. Gerald Levinson's Crickets evoked the insect's chirps in writing for piano quintet.
Freeman need not apologize for his student songs, including one on a Latin text intoned in Sprechstimme.