The Boston Globe
Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff
September 24, 2009

September is usually the quietest month of the year for local classical music, with the summer activity largely vanished and the fall tumult yet to descend. Last year was an exception, with the Alice M. Ditson Fund throwing a big new-music party for most of the established local ensembles over four days at the Institute of Contemporary Art. As groups collaborated and programmed on a broader canvas, the festival energized the local scene, and many musical insiders hoped it could become a fall tradition. New funders would be needed and the scale might necessarily be smaller, but it was clear that those September weeks were ripe for something more ambitious than a single concert.

In that spirit, conductor Gil Rose set out to plan another festival for this September with his Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Then the recession hit and hopes dimmed - that is, until Rose heard about $50 million of federal stimulus funds being allocated, after heated debate, to the National Endowment for the Arts. BMOP applied for a special stimulus grant. It worked. Presto: $50,000, or about 80 percent of the new festival’s budget.

So now, a year after the Ditson, we have “Voice of America,” a six-concert, three-day event beginning Sept. 25, with plans to jump-start the classical music season and - as luck would have it - the national economy. For the occasion, BMOP has partnered with the Florestan Recital Project and the Tufts University Department of Music, which will host the performances at its own Distler Performance Hall at the Granoff Music Center.

A full half of the festival will be given over to Florestan’s “BarberFest,” a traversal of the complete songs of Samuel Barber, with each program followed by a BMOP orchestral performance of repertoire ranging from recent vocal works by local composers Scott Wheeler and Andy Vores to rarely heard orchestral songs by Milton Babbitt and Jacob Druckman to iconic American scores such as Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.”

“Everyone loved the Ditson,” said Rose, “but that approach involves a bucket-load of money. None of the [new music groups] including BMOP is capable of taking that on. This festival is on a smaller scale, but it’s still an attempt to take that late-September time slot and create a special environment.”

Rose and the other organizers believe that the Tufts hall, with its capacity of just over 300, will be ideally scaled to the intimate vocal programs. For its part, the university has been looking for ways to place its performance space, which opened in January 2007, more firmly on the musical map of Greater Boston. “It’s a great place to experience music,” said Joseph Auner, chairman of the Tufts music department, “and we really want people to know about it.”

Vocalists for the festival include Sarah Pelletier, Thomas Meglioranza, Lucy Shelton, Janna Baty, Krista River, Kristen Watson, and the baritone Aaron Engebreth, who together with Anne Kissel, Joe Dan Harper, and Alison d’Amato, directs the Florestan Recital Project. The group has presented complete cycles of Poulenc’s vocal music in the past, and has long had its collective eye on the complete Barber.

And they mean complete. Florestan received permission from the Library of Congress and Barber’s own estate to perform more than one dozen unpublished songs. Some of the manuscripts were disintegrating to the point that archivists would not let them be photocopied, so Engebreth and colleagues brought their digital cameras down to Washington D.C., and took pictures of the scores. The music, according to Engebreth, easily repays the effort.

“I think Barber is often taken for granted but he is a real master of song,” the baritone said. “The music is very pleasing to the ear, and it’s very pleasing to sing. And I think all that unabashed lyricism really reflected his honest thoughts.”

Engebreth is also not worried about offering such a concentrated dose of Barber’s style. “I think any time a composer’s complete music is being performed in a few days, there’s a danger of hearing a certain amount of sameness,” he said. “But Barber’s songs create three very different programs. Each song is really a world of its own.”

September 25-27, $18-$30, Granoff Music Center at Tufts.

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