The orchestra now known as the New England Philharmonic evolved from a community string ensemble, the Mystic Valley Chamber Orchestra, which was founded by the violists Michel Perrault and Gervásio de Chaves in 1976. The group gave its inaugural performances in Arlington and Belmont in November 1977 under the direction of Charles Ellis, its first conductor and music director. Ellis continued on for three seasons, presenting four pairs of concerts each year in Boston and suburban venues. In 1978 Ellis commissioned the composer Stephen Savage to write a work for the orchestra, establishing the organization’s commitment to new music which has continued to this day.
From 1980 to 1983 the orchestra was conducted by Allen Olsen and Kenneth Seitz. They continued the practice of regularly programming new music and presided over the ensemble’s expansion from a string chamber orchestra to a full orchestra with winds, brass, and percussion, allowing it to explore a new repertoire.
In 1983, Ronald Feldman, a cellist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, began his five-year tenure as music director. Under his direction, a number of important programs were instituted, foremost among them the appointment of Robert Kyr as the orchestra’s first Composer in Residence in 1985. In addition to producing an annual commissioned work, the Composer in Residence was asked to conduct a Call for Scores competition each year and select works for performance by the orchestra from the compositions submitted, soon numbering in the hundreds.
In 1986 the orchestra took up residency at Framingham State College, repeating each concert program at the FSC campus and inaugurating a December Family Concert that featured the winner of a youth concerto competition sponsored by the college. This mutually beneficial association was to continue for eleven years.
By this time the organization had outgrown its local profile and its chamber orchestra origins. In 1987 it adopted the name New England Philharmonic to represent its expanded audience and aspirations. In 1988 the NEP received the ASCAP Award for Adventuresome Programming, a national recognition of its special commitment to new music. At the time it was the only orchestra of its size to have both a Composer in Residence and a Call for Scores program. The NEP has gone on to receive this award five more times.
Jeffrey Rink became the newly named orchestra’s music director in 1988. Under his direction the NEP continued to grow in size, quality, and ambition, attracting as volunteer performers some of the area’s best professional, nonprofessional, and student players. Highlights of the eight years that Jeffrey Rink led the orchestra included well-received collaborations with arts organizations from the Underground Railway Theater to Chorus pro Musica, a number of appearances to full houses at Boston’s First Night celebrations, and the local or world premieres of at least thirty works by contemporary composers. The Composer in Residence program continued to flourish, with the service of two distinguished local composers, Richard Cornell from 1989 to 1993, and Marjorie Merryman from 1994 to 1997. The orchestra received further recognition of its unique programming mission in the form of one of the first grants awarded by the newly established Aaron Copland Fund for Music, in 1993, as well as support from the Virgil Thomson Foundation.
Beginning with the 1996-97 season, NEP established its residency at Simmons College, in Boston. A special 20th anniversary concert in May 1997 featured works by each of NEP’s past and present Composers in Residence, with all of them in attendance.
In 1997 Richard Pittman was appointed music director. Highlights of his tenure have included Boston, New England and/or world premieres at nearly every performance, including a new work commissioned by the NEP every season, along with presentations of works by musical masters from Haydn and Beethoven to Mahler to Stravinsky to Elliott Carter. Under Mr. Pittman, the NEP has performed with leading soloists such as Jayne West, Jacques Zoon, Bayla Keyes, Stephen Drury, and Lucia Lin; has appeared at Boston’s First Night celebration and in educational collaborations with schools in Westwood, Harvard, Everett, and North Andover, Mass.; and performances with the Simmons College Concert Choir, Chorus pro Musica, the Boston Conservatory Chorus, and other choral groups. Michael Gandolfi served as Composer in Residence from 1997 to 2000, followed by Richard Cornell from 2000 to 2002, Andy Vores from 2002 to 2005, Peter Child from 2005 to 2011, and David Rakowski beginning in 2011, all carrying forward the Call for Scores competition. Each season has also featured a performance by the winner of the NEP’s Young Artists Competition.
Committed to playing the best music of the past and the present, the NEP continues to thrive on the exhilarating moments when composer, performer, and audience share the same time and space.