"Sacred and Profane," as the New England String Ensemble titled its Sunday concert, raises in the expectant listener's mind a stark dichotomy, cleanly dividing things of this world from things transcendent. Yet for some works on this wide-ranging program, it was a tantalizing challenge to decide into which category they fit.
The line blurred most fruitfully in the afternoon's major offering: Richard Strauss's "Metamorphosen," an elegiac late work for 23 solo strings. This is a piece of astonishing contrapuntal complexity, unlike anything else in the composer's output. Think of a Bach fantasia, elongated and rewritten in the harmonic language of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde."
"Metamorphosen" was written shortly after the 1945 bombing of Dresden, a history-drenched city in which Strauss had celebrated some of his greatest triumphs. In the face of the war's tremendous devastation, the composer seems to be mourning not the human victims but German culture itself, which was now so much rubble in the city's streets. As if to confirm this, Strauss in the coda quotes the funeral march from Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony, and in the score labels the passage "In Memoriam!" For many Germans that culture was sacred; now it lay in ruins, replaced not just by the profane, but by barbarism.
Four shorter, less-demanding works preceded the Strauss. Touching both of the program's categories was Debussy's elegant, mysteriously beautiful "Danse Sacrée et Danse Profane" for solo harp and strings. Haydn's "Little Organ" Mass is a compact Mass setting, including a one-minute "Gloria" and a "Credo" that covers the essentials of Christian affirmation in less than five. Even more noteworthy is Haydn's ability to pack so many marks of his genius into so compressed a space.
Arvo Pärt's "Festina Lente," for strings, took its title from a saying of Augustus Caesar meaning "Hasten slowly." Pärt turned the advice into a contrapuntal form in which the same theme is heard simultaneously at different speeds. It is slow and solemn, as if standing slightly apart from the world. A flute concerto by Johann Quantz was conventional Baroque fare - not profane, but workaday.
The New England String Ensemble's playing was solid, if somewhat dutiful, through much of the program. Happily, the musicians saved their best efforts for "Metamorphosen," which required them to be both orchestra and chamber group. They succeeded, thanks not only to the individual players' skill but to Federico Cortese's strong, clear direction. Two excellent young soloists joined the ensemble: flutist Katherine Griffith, 16, in the Quantz and harpist Krysten Keches, 19, in the Debussy. Coro Allegro, soprano Jessica Tarnish, and organist Nathan Zullinger were able partners in the Haydn.