Blessed Earth, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s aural exploration of human extinction, started with a whimper and ended with a bang. Compared to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which closed the program, John Luther Adams’ ecological elegy Vespers of a Blessed Earth seemed like a tranquil way to shuffle off this mortal coil. Considering all the personnel changes surrounding this world premiere, all the drama appeared to take place offstage.

Meigui Zhang, John Luther Adams and the Philadelphia Orchestra
© Margo Reed

Earlier this week, scheduled soloist Ying Fang cited illness and withdrew, replaced by Meigui Zhang. Then after missing a series of rehearsals, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin called out sick on the morning of the first public performance. Donald Nally – artistic director of the Philadelphia-based chamber choir The Crossing, which made its debut with the Orchestra in the Adams work – stepped in at the last minute to conduct the premiere.

Nally deserves recognition for saving the day, and he demonstrated supreme control over the vocal forces. Perched in the conductor’s circle above the stage of Verizon Hall, The Crossing produced an eerily transparent, almost ghostly sound that matched the theme of the music. Hypnotically, they anchored several movements that dealt thematically with the vanishing of Earth’s resources: A Weeping of Doves, where the carefully pitched a cappella voices wedded bird call to temple chanting, and Litanies of the Sixth Extinction, where the genus names of destroyed species ultimately gave way to homo sapiens.

I couldn’t help but wonder, though, if a conductor more versed in symphonic music might have found more variation in Adams’ spare orchestrations, which tipped occasionally from the hypnotic to the bland. Night-Shining Clouds, the sole movement scored entirely for orchestra, featured the intermittent striking detail, like the high silvery flute that floated above the mass of ascending string lines. Bass clarinets brought a poignant depth to Aria of the Ghost Bird, in which a soon-to-be-eradicated warbler calls out fruitlessly for a mate. Yet these were largely isolated moments within a uniform tapestry that lacked the personality and character of Adams’ other works, like the mixed-electronic tone poem Dark Waves. And although Zhang sang the vocalise in Aria of the Ghost Bird with arresting control, the repeated solo lines did not evolve thematically with the music – there was no rising sense of panic, dread or resignation with fate.

Donald Nally conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra
© Margo Reed

In a largely perfunctory pre-concert recitation, narrator and host Charlotte Blake Alston quoted Adams’ treatise on environmentalism: “I fear for humanity, but what I do not fear for is the Earth.” Perhaps the musical message embedded in Vespers of a Blessed Earth is that the ecosystem will sustain itself with greater solemnity once the pesky problem of living creatures has been dispatched. Yet for balance, the work needs to present the human voice of the equation with greater tension.

If the Adams presented a controlled and sometimes chilly evocation of the natural world, conductor Marin Alsop fostered an atmosphere of joyous abandon in The Rite of Spring. Possibly owing to the last-minute substitution on the podium, the performance had a looser, more freewheeling quality than I’ve heard from this orchestra in a while, although the large masses of sound were not created at the expense of detail or coloristic shading, as in the especial warmth of Daniel Matsukawa’s solo bassoon line. Vespers of a Blessed Earth might sound a warning for the impending doom of climate change, but in this concert, the vibrant Dance of the Earth overpowered that worthy message.