It's hard to think of a concerto that is, from start to finish, brimming with greater amity and warmth than the new Flute Concerto by Samuel Jones, given its world premiere Friday afternoon in Verizon Hall by the Philadelphia Orchestra.
What's more, the piece has tremendous mood — with the kind of opening that establishes a poignant urgency, the way the first movement of Walton's Violin Concerto does.
Jones, Mississippi-born and Eastman-trained, works in a musical language that looks back — to Howard Hanson, perhaps, with whom he studied, but also generally to Barber and other mid-20th-century traditionalists. There's nothing wrong with that. And nothing wrong with the fact that there are stretches of his Flute Concerto that could be at home in film. At 82, Jones is comfortable with who he is, and who he is is the composer of some beautifully elegiac music.
The work was written for its soloist, Jeffrey Khaner, the orchestra's longtime principal flutist, who had it firmly under his fingers. If Jones is a traditionalist in some ways, he also took a novel approach or two. Instead of shying away from the sound of the other flutists in the orchestra, he melded their colors with that of the soloist in the third movement. Elsewhere, he blended two piccolos. The third movement is woven from American tunes — "Battle Hymn of the Republic" makes an appearance — but so skillfully that Jones avoids the obvious traps of jingoism or echoing Ives. It's all very dignified and sincere, modes that ring in modern ears as a salve.
The first movement ends with Khaner on a single low note, all by himself — a particularly emotional stroke when you realize that grief was an influence here; both composer and soloist were dealing with the loss of brothers as the piece was being written.
Jones seemed also to have something of the sound of this orchestra in mind. It wasn't entirely clear elsewhere in the program that the conductor was interested in cultivating what we normally think of as the plummy Philadelphia Orchestra sound. Pablo Heras-Casado brought a chipper, well-detailed interpretation to Schubert's Overture to Rosamunde, and the sound was even leaner in the Brahms Symphony No. 2. When this Spanish conductor made his debut here in 2016, he led a Mendelssohn symphony of changing tempos and character.
This time in Brahms, it was about emotional control, and I wondered whether there might be a place on the spectrum in between — an individuality, but one expressed judiciously. There were Goldilocks moments: the section after Jennifer Montone's lovely horn solo at the end of the first movement, where Heras-Casado took a bit of time to feel something, and in the quicker tempo of a second movement made to seem all the more charming for its blush of youth.