Music Professor James Freeman to Debut New Orchestra This Weekend

James Freeman

Freeman's new orchestra, First Editions, allows him to directly involve Swarthmore's advanced student players in the performances.

As thrilled as James Freeman is to present his new orchestra to Swarthmore later this month, it’s something of a wild card.

“What’s always excited me and still does is that when you commission new pieces of music, you can never quite know what you’re going to get,” says the Daniel Underhill Professor Emeritus of Music. “It’s always exciting to find out when you see the score for the first time and see what the challenges will be for the orchestra, the conductor, and the audience.”

His new ensemble, First Editions, weaves classical with contemporary, professionals with amateurs. It bursts with Tri-Co collaboration, with a composition from Heidi Jacob, associate professor of music at Haverford College, and performances from students from each of the schools.

“That was very much by design,” says Freeman, “capitalizing on these connections between the institutions and their wonderful performance spaces that will have us.”

Freeman took parallel paths to the project. The first was to return to incorporating students into performances, as he did for most of the 27 years he spent as artistic director of Orchestra 2001, the College’s long-time ensemble in residence.

“We’ve got students, particularly from Swarthmore, who could have gone to Juilliard or Eastman but, fortunately, pursued a strong liberal arts education,” he says. “Wonderfully talented players who are advanced enough on their instruments to perform beside eminent professionals.”

The second was a budding fascination with the early years of Mozart — “trying to figure out how he developed from an extremely talented six- or seven-year-old kid to one of the greatest geniuses of all time,” he says.

With First Editions, Freeman taps an orchestra to explore Mozart’s rarely performed early works. But he will juxtapose those with short pieces he commissioned from Jacob and Cynthia Folio, professor of music with Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance.

“That’s where the notion of ‘first editions’ comes from,” he says. “Here are Mozart’s first editions, as they were, and those of some contemporary composers. Those will be the two facets of our concerts, and I can’t wait for the discussions between the composer, musicians, and audience on how they intersect.”

Further rooting the performances to place will be virtuoso pianist and Swarthmore resident Charles Abramovic, professor of music at the Boyer College, performing the solo to Mozart’s “K.271” concerto. He and the other renowned players from the area joined the advanced student string players for rehearsals this past weekend. A precious opportunity, for the students in particular.

“I was excited to join this orchestra because I love playing in a group and meeting other people who are passionate about music,” says Jasmine Sun ’18, a violinist from Bethlehem, Pa. “That gives you a different perspective because you have to learn to listen to others and react to what you hear around you.”

“I hope to collaborate meaningfully with the pros and learn from them,” adds Berlin Chen ’19, a violinist from Pasadena, Calif. “I’m eager to further my ensemble-playing skills and experience performing in a semi-professional setting.”

First Editions debuts at Swarthmore on Sunday, February 21, at 3 p.m. in Lang Concert Hall, with an encore at Haverford College’s Roberts Hall on Friday, February 26, at 7:30 p.m. Concerts are free and open to the public without a ticket.