WILLIAMSTOWN -- You might not know it from today's concert programs, but there were important American composers before Ives and Copland.
Consider John Knowles Paine. He was one of six members of a loosely knit group known as the Second New England School, which flourished in and around Boston in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Once in a while these days, a work by Edward MacDowell or Amy Beach is dusted off, but mostly the music is forgotten.
Ronald Feldman remembers. To open the Berkshire Symphony's season tonight, he'll conduct the Williams College-based orchestra in Paine's overture to the Shakespeare play "As You Like It." Feldman, the orchestra's director, likes to include an American work on each program.
But more than that, Feldman points out, Paine was the first important American composer -- also the first professor of music at Harvard. The overture, Feldman says, is a "very good piece, sadly neglected, and a nice companion piece" to Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, which also figures in the program.
The concert, which begins at 8 p.m. in Chapin Hall and features artist-in-residence Doris Stevenson as the piano soloist, includes another unusual work: Sibelius' Symphony No. 7. It is a one-movement symphony that is often overlooked because of its form and calmness, unusual for the composer. It is also his last symphony.
"Although he did keep composing for a few years after completing it," Feldman said in an email, "the idea that the well had run dry after this final symphony has always been a curiosity. I always found it interesting to hear a voice so unusual and distinctive, like no other that I know of, out of the blue."
The American theme continues in the season's second concert, on Nov. 22. The program includes Michael Torke's "Javelin," a dazzler composed for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Also on the program are Ravel's "Tombeau de Couperin" and Brahms' Fourth Symphony.
Two more concerts will follow in 2014, the first with a work by the American Bernard Rands and the second -- if tradition holds -- with the premiere of a piece by a Williams student composer. Guest conductors will take the two programs while Feldman goes on a sabbatical.
The First New England School consisted of late 18th-century hymnodists. Coming a century later, the second group reflected European influences of its time; the music can suggest composers from Beethoven through Schumann and Brahms. (For both groups, the term "school" was invented by historians, not the composers.)
Indeed, it was a suggestion many years ago by Boston composer, conductor and educator Gunther Schuller that led Feldman to the Paine overture. Schuller found a resemblance in Paine's style to Beethoven's, planting the seed in Feldman's mind for the concert pairing.
The Beethoven connection came naturally to Paine (1839-1906). Like others of the Boston group, he studied composition in Germany, absorbing the classical and romantic styles. On his return to Boston in 1861, he was idolized as "the arbiter of the Boston genteel tradition in the arts," according to the Grove Dictionary.
Paine was the unofficial leader of the New England group, which had social as well as musical connections. He remained 43 years at Harvard, where Paine Hall is named for him. His many compositions, ranging from a mass and two symphonies to chamber works and songs, include 100 pieces written for Harvard concerts, plays and other events, but there is no record of whether the "As You Like It" overture is among them.
To a certain extent, the Sibelius Seventh, a 1924 composition, is also a victim of its times. It is not as often performed as some of the Finnish composer's earlier works - the Second and Fifth symphonies, for example.
Though the Seventh was the first single-movement symphony of any importance, Feldman sees its uniqueness mainly in terms of spirituality. He quotes annotator Richard Freed, who wrote that "the spiritual calm of this work is the climax of the spiritual experience of a lifetime and cannot be achieved (by other composers) by any aping of external mannerisms."
The revolution wrought by Schoenberg and Stravinsky in the early 20th century, along with the rise of more advanced American composers like Ives, doomed the Boston group to obsolescence. The music may be unduly neglected, as Feldman and others have suggested, but when people want to hear Beethoven, they turn to Beethoven - as the Berkshire Symphony will.