Two brief fanfares opened the concert. Piotr Gajewski conducted the orchestra's brass and percussion in elegant and imposing versions of these works. Tower fashioned her "Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman" on the Copland, keeping his orchestration and basic structure. But the similarity ends there, for Tower calls for breathtaking skill from its virtuosic timpanist (and got it Saturday), more embellished chordal textures and a richer palette of timbres than the Copland. Ostensibly representing female instrumentalists, violinist Chee-Yun dove into the Saint-Saens with tonal delicacy and total control. But this sentimentally sappy piece simply intruded on the theme of the evening.
Beach's Grand Mass in E-flat, Op. 25, begun when she was 19, was premiered in 1892 in Boston by the influential Handel and Haydn Society, its first performance of music by a female composer. (Although basically self-taught, Beach also wrote the first symphony by an American woman - an amazing feat, because until the 1800s, women were barred from formal training in conservatories.) The lengthy mass overflows with lyricism and passion, qualities that Gajewski underscored. But Beach didn't fully develop her melodic or harmonic ideas, often sprinkled with reminiscences of Verdi, Wagner and Fauré. (In Boston's rich musical life, Beach would have frequently heard major works.) Instead, she relied on repetition, fugal entrances and varying instrumental and vocal textures.
The orchestra tried valiantly to energize its trite material. Prepared by Stan Engebretson, the chorus gave a precise, dedicated account of the Beach. Of the four vocal soloists, mezzo Magdalena Wor and baritone Jordan Shanahan sang with the greatest ebullience and grace.