Chamber Orchestra First Editions successfully took its audience hostage Sunday at the Trinity Center for Urban Life, enticing listeners with new works by some of Philadelphia's more gratifying composers, plus Mozart's Flute Concerto No. 1 in G, K. 313 featuring the unusually superb soloist Mimi Stillman. Admission was free, but there was a price -- the magnitude of which depended on your ability to tolerate self-indulgent talk fests, instigated by artistic director James Freeman, that invaded the concert in the worst places.
The first half had somewhat underrehearsed new pieces -- including Robert Maggio's beautifully sustained Bright Elegy, dedicated to his late mother and based on a Sicilian folk song that was so well integrated into the overall piece that you felt its presence while mostly hearing the lyrical sweep and emotional gravity of a late Mahler.
Ingrid Arauco's Via Cordis, based on the Henri Nouwen book The Way of the Heart, built its musical narrative on firmly chiseled scales amid attractive washes of sound. Curt Cacioppo's A Meeting of Souls (led by associate conductor Heidi Jacob) used harpsichord and trippy quotations from Bach to create collage effects similar to Alfred Schnittke, though with a less trenchant purpose. Zhou Tian's Viaje fused the composer's Chinese American sensibility with the lore of ancient Spain so convincingly that the exotic flute solos for Stillman sounded like the most natural thing in the world.
However, right after Maggio's piece, Freeman called the three composers in attendance out of the audience and put them on the spot with such hard-to-answer questions as why they compose (which is like asking why they breathe). The situation was unenlightening and awkward. After intermission, Stillman's killer reading of the Mozart concerto's first movement prompted such healthy applause that Freeman seized the microphone and loudly exclaimed that's exactly what an audience should do (not realizing that between-movement applause is hardly uncommon in Philadelphia).