Ensemble premieres
an impressive piece

Scott Wheeler had originally planned to call his new work for string orchestra "Crazy Weather," the title of a poem by John Ashbery. Though he eventually changed the title to "Wakefield Doubles" -- in part to reflect the hometown of the New England String Ensemble, who gave the piece its premiere this weekend -- the original title would have been apt, with or without the literary reference.

Wheeler's impressive piece is a constantly shifting prism of sounds and textures, thriving on quick changes of mood and an extensive array of colors. The resemblance to the New England climate could not have been plainer. Wheeler, who teaches at Emerson and directs the new-music group Dinosaur Annex, cast the piece for two separate ensembles and had them play strongly dissimilar music simultaneously, creating interesting tensions. The piece opens with a loud thwack from the double basses; then one group plays a series of angular lines that orbit away from and back to a single note, while the second offers dusty clouds of seemingly unrelated harmonics. In the third movement, busy moto perpetuo runs in the violins are interrupted by some eerie quarter-tone slides in the cellos. It was a lot to take in as a whole, but as a series of snapshots it was striking. The ensemble's players tackled this difficult work with zeal and brought it off splendidly.

Wheeler was joined on the first half of Sunday's program by another pair of opposites: Bach and Respighi. Bach's Fourth Brandenburg Concerto got a performance that was buoyant and full of rich sound, even from a slimmed-down ensemble. Susan Davenny Wyner's conducting was refreshingly direct and unmannered, giving her players only as much direction as they needed and trusting them to carry the rest. She carefully managed the balance between the strings and the three strong soloists: flutists Chris Krueger and Wendy Rolfe, and violinist Arturo Delmoni, who tossed off the pyrotechnics of his part with aplomb.

Respighi's rarely played song "Il Tramonto" closed the first half, and was a shock to those who know the composer only through his splashy tone poems. His setting of Shelley's poem "The Sunset" was delicate and evocative, and featured some lush post-Wagnerian harmonies.

Soprano Maria Ferrante was outstanding. Her voice is pure and lyrical, and every note was eloquently understated. A new world seemed to open when she sang the word "pace" ("peace") on the song's final page.

After intermission came Brahms's G-major String Sextet, arranged by Wyner for string orchestra. Arrangements, especially those that augment the performing forces, are a matter of benefits and losses, with the latter often outweighing the former.

That, unfortunately, was the case here. Whatever the music gained in power it lost in clarity. Much of Brahms's detailed counterpoint, smoothed out in the massed string sound, became fuzzy, and the violas and cellos occasionally had trouble overcoming the violins when they had the main melody. Still, some moments had a kind of galvanizing force, and the ensemble's 26 players again handled a difficult assignment beautifully.

New England String Ensemble

Susan DavennyWyner, music director

At: Jordan Hall, Sunday