Apr 162012

Discovery Ensemble occupies a rare space in two major respects: programming demanding works and executing them with spirit, enthusiasm, and inspired music making.

Discovery Ensemble. At Jordan Hall, Boston, MA, April 13, 8 p.m.

By Anthony J. Palmer.

Discovery Ensemble conductor Courtney Lewis. Photo: Eric Antoniou

After I interviewed Courtney Lewis recently for The Arts Fuse, I assumed the subsequent concert would be noteworthy. I was not disappointed. Some of my expectation was based on having heard the CD of Discovery Ensemble’s November 6 performance; the group played with considerable sensitivity, something not generally heard from non-professional orchestras. Although the latter term must qualified in this case, in that the Discovery Ensemble is fully staffed with young aspiring musicians with plenty of chops at this stage of their careers.

The concert began with a very powerful Leonore Overture, No. 2. Mr. Lewis—conducting from memory, a good sign in a young conductor—drew from his charges a dynamic and nuanced performance. Dynamic contrasts in Beethoven are one mark of his genius, and the orchestra captured these masterfully. The violins cleanly articulated the 32nd note runs, indicating a grasp of the score and its demands. Beethoven well played.

Kacy Clapton on cello followed with a concentrated and exciting Mania by Esa-Pekka Salonen. One mission of the ensemble is to take advantage of different instrumentations, and in the case of the Salonen work, the ensemble was cut down to a potpourri of approximately 15 players—lots of percussion (pitched mallet and idiophonic), piano, harp, assorted strings, and wind instruments. Both the cello and the orchestra exhibited lyrical and manic runs and tremolos, suggesting a bipolar disposition. While the work is eclectic in its compositional technique, it stands as a solid entry in the solo cello repertoire and will probably be performed often. The orchestra gave Ms. Clapton convincingly appropriate support, and she certainly made the case for Mania with her flashy yet solid presentation.

After intermission the orchestra was reset with cellos and basses—on stage left instead of the reverse for the Beethoven—displaying sensitivity to the music’s demand for a different orchestral balance. Debussy’s Prélude å l’après-midi d’un faune was given a classic, ethereal rendition, from the flute’s entrance to its role in the closing moments. In between was a tender, amorous, and seductive musical experience featuring impressive horn, woodwind, and brass solos. Given its captivating opening—the flute emphasizing a tritone, which is not usually displayed so overtly—Pierre Boulez referred to this composition as the beginning of modern music. Bianca Garcia (I assume the principal played the solo) made the most of the opportunity. Successfully performing the Prelude is also a mark of achievement of a young orchestra that is intent on making its mark as a self-assertive and integrated troupe.

Balancing the menu and closing the evening was the Mozart Symphony No. 39, which Lewis conducted from memory. The orchestra continued to display the flexibility demanded by the diverse programming for the evening. Although the Beethoven and Mozart have a strong kinship, there was a difference shown in the overall tone. The Mozart was a bit lighter in quality than the Beethoven, and the ensemble maturely exerted the desirable control.

Courtney Lewis — a conductor with a bright future. Photo: Travid Anderson

Symphony No. 39 comes from the year 1788. Perhaps it is my imagination, but the music’s contrasts in dynamics, with the trumpets and timpani bursting out on occasion, suggests to me a reaction by Mozart to the social unrest of the period. The Austro-Turkish War began in 1787 and lasted through 1791, the year of Mozart’s death. The mood in Vienna was one of disarray; many restaurants were closing and the wealthy were deserting the city. Without patrons, artists and musicians were bereft of the usual commissions. In addition, Mozart himself was affected by his deteriorating health and was probably concerned with finances. Remember that the Requiem (1791) was left unfinished.

The orchestra was up to the challenge, exhibiting a smooth, velvety lyricism punctuated by booming fortes in brass and timpani. Displaying an impressive control of dynamics is a characteristic of this group and its conductor. The second movement of the symphony featured some very delicate playing, as did the minuet with merging lines melting one into the other smoothly, producing the effect of a single line. The exuberant fourth movement showed some marvelous string ensemble playing with delightful adornment in the winds.

Life and music is contextual. The following evening I heard a singularly great performance of the BSO under Esa-Pekka Salonen (See The Arts Fuse review); any comparison would be infelicitous. Within the context of this orchestra’s territory, they occupy a rare space in two major respects: programming demanding works and executing them with spirit, enthusiasm, and inspired music making.


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