Concertgoers might have noticed a time warp Wednesday in Symphony Hall, at the world premi`ere of a choral work combining 17th-century devotional poetry with 20th-century 12-tone music. But there's no disputing that ``The White Island,'' by Donald Martino, received a masterly performance from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus under director John Oliver, while an ensemble from the Boston Symphony Orchestra deftly executed the difficult accompaniment. And the appreciative audience gave the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer a warm round of applause.
Mr. Martino had long been aware of the dramatic possibilities in Robert Herrick's jaunty but heartfelt verses on mortality and salvation. So when commissioned to write something in honor of the BSO's centennial, he selected five of Herrick's poems to set to music.
The sequence begins with ``The Bellman'' and ``Upon Time,'' in which the poet imagines the clock ticking away toward judgment day and contemplates accounts that must be squared. Martino's setting opens with chimes tolling, tympani beating, and trombones growling. The music is dissonant and agitated as the chorus sings of ``death and dreadfulness.'' Then ``His Letanie, to the Holy Spirit'' presents a catalog of earthly distresses, each ending with the plea ``Sweet Spirit comfort me!'' - which Martino frames as a dialogue, with the men of the chorus chanting the complaints and the women answering with the beautifully melodic prayers. Ever so gradually the women's voices become dominant, and the men join with them.
``The goodness of his God'' finds the women singing about the storms of the soul and the men answering with choralelike hymns of reassurance, which culminate in a unison verse. Finally ``The white Island: or Place of the Blest'' (for which the whole work is named) inspires an ethereal setting for a text celebrating the joys of heaven and immortality, with a final note that goes on forever.
Martino is an heir of Schoenberg, who sought new worlds to conquer by abandoning the well-used harmonic structure of his predecessors and adopting one based on the serialized repetition of tone sequences.
Nonetheless, the sequences Martino often selects are reminiscent of the old harmonies. So ``The White Island'' is ``blatantly concerned with tonality,'' as he puts it, even though technically nontonal. It's also rich with the kind of ``text-painting'' found in Renaissance music - the line that rushes dramatically down the scale when words like ``streams'' or ``tears'' are sung, or that surges skyward with a verb like ``fly.'' The work also contains some brief snatches from jazz, Verdi, and other sources keen listeners may catch. In all, it's a rich, resonant, and intelligent composition, whose audience appeal will likely grow as ears become better attuned to the musical language of the present.