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Metamorphosen premieres symphony of surprises

The Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra has been developing a college audience, so the demographics of its public must be the envy of many other musical institutions. Founding music director Scott Yoo draws his players from the cream of young musicians on the Eastern seaboard. Some of the current group must have been in kindergarten when Metamorphosen was founded a decade ago. Many in the Jordan Hall audience Saturday night were the same age as the performers, creating a lively dynamic.

Every Metamorphosen program has featured a new work, usually by one of the consortium of young composers affiliated with the group. Saturday night brought a Symphony for Strings by Jeffery Cotton. One movement of this piece, the "Elegy," was written in the aftermath of 9/11 and premiered by Metamorphosen two weeks later. Later, Cotton incorporated it into a three-movement string sextet. Cotton has expanded the sextet by adding another movement to create a symphony lasting pretty close to a half-hour.

It's a lively, attractive, and intelligent piece with some nifty surprises to reward close attention. It's also well made and ingeniously laid out for the strings, and it doesn't wear out its welcome. Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" inevitably lies behind the "Elegy," and the whole piece has a retro late-'30s, early-'40s feel to it, which sounds a little odd coming from a young composer of the 21st century. The most interesting movement is the last, a set of variations that spins in widening gyres away from the theme. The composer couldn't have asked for a better performance than the one offered by these supple young string players under Yoo's energetic and detailed direction.

The rest of the program -- an early Mozart piano concerto (K. 271) paired with one of the last ones (K. 449) -- ought to have been more interesting than it was. The soloist was William Wolfram, an American pianist who has the kind of solid reputation inside the business that Richard Goode enjoyed for years before he hit the big time.

But Wolfram did not have a good night. He seemed nervous and fussed even more with his big white hankie than Luciano Pavarotti used to. Wolfram's a big man with a leonine profile, but most of his playing was small to the point of feebleness, which made an odd match for the big and characterful phrases coming from Yoo and the orchestra. The pianism wasn't always clean and even came close to collapse at least once in each of the concertos. Wolfram did get himself organized for the rondo finale of K. 271, which had enough dash and sparkle to suggest he's a better pianist than Saturday night's circumstances allowed him to be.

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