According to conductor Courtney Lewis, it was very difficult for the Discovery Ensemble when it started out. But now it is playing more concerts than before, its education program is growing, and the quality of the personnel in the orchestra has improved.
By Anthony J. Palmer
Discovery Ensemble’s’s 2012–2013 season brochure arrived, and I called the conductor of the group, Courtney Lewis, to discuss the upcoming season. (I interviewed Lewis last year and reviewed their last concert, enthusiastically.) The season has expanded to four concerts and features a menu of exciting works and compelling soloists.
“To be able to expand the season is very exciting,” explains Lewis during our conversation, “and of course, having pieces that we can use when we go into schools and workshops. There are a lot of fun pieces kids will enjoy.” More on the education outreach later.
I commented on the three soloists who will be featured in the new season. “Well, we always want to have interesting soloists to introduce to Boston audiences,” says Lewis, “and Joshua (Wellerstein) doesn’t need any introduction. We love to work with him because he has been with Discovery Ensemble since the very beginning.”
Wallerstein, the former concertmaster of Discovery Ensemble, begins the season with an unusual work, The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, by Argentina’s noted and feted composer, Astor Piazzolla. The composer is famous for his embrace of bandoneón in the traditional symphonic form. Bandoneón is a type of concertina used mainly in tango orchestras. The Four Seasons was originally written for Piazolla’s quintet (bandoneón, piano, violin, electric guitar and electric bass). Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov was commissioned by violinist Gidon Kremer to arrange the work for solo violin and strings. Discovery Ensemble’s performance of the work spotlights the talents of Wellerstein, now with the New York Philharmonic as assistant conductor.
Essa Pekka Salonen is back this season with Five Images after Sappho, featuring Karin Wolverton, soprano, whom Opera News touted as “a young soprano to watch.” Although there was no discussion of Wolverton’s selection with Salonen, the composer is very pleased that she will perform his work, especially hearing that she had sung Pamina in Mozart’s Magic Flute with Lewis and the Minnesota Orchestra. Salonen thinks she had the perfect voice for his 1999 composition.
The fourth concert focuses on pianist Michael McHale, playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, a work dedicated to the composer’s friend and patron, Archduke Rudolph. McHale was born in Belfast, as was Lewis, and is considered one of the leading young Irish musicians, ranging across solo recital, concerto, and chamber repertoire. McHale and Lewis grew up together in Belfast, although, ironically, the Minnesota concert and the performance of Beethoven in Boston will be the first times they will play together. Lewis tells me that “McHale is a wonderful musician and I’ve known his playing for a long time, especially in classical repertoire.”
The too-often neglected South American repertoire is covered by pairing, with the Piazolla piece, of Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9 by Villa-Lobos. Other modern works include Bartok’s Divertimento, Stravinsky’s Danses concertantes, and Schoenberg’s Second Chamber Symphony. The latter has an interesting history in that the work was begun in 1906, abandoned and then completed in 1939; Schoenberg returned to the composition but had to recapture his tonal mindset after his tumultuous turns toward atonality and serialism. The chamber symphony finally received its premiere in 1940.
One other contemporary work deserves mention, John Adams’s Chamber Symphony, the newest in Discovery Ensemble’s lineup. Composed in 1992 for the San Francisco Contemporary Chamber Players, the piece’s american premiere was on April 12 of that year. In terms of Schoenberg and this composition, John Adams writes that
the Chamber Symphony bears a suspicious resemblance to its eponymous predecessor, the Opus 9 of Arnold Schoenberg. The choice of instruments is roughly the same as Schoenberg’s, although mine includes parts for synthesizer, percussion (a trap set), trumpet and trombone. However, whereas the Schoenberg symphony is in one uninterrupted structure, mine is broken into three discrete movements, “Mongrel Airs”; “Aria with Walking Bass” and “Roadrunner.” The titles give a hint of the general ambiance of the music.
Lewis continues his exploration of the Schumann symphonies with No. 4, examines the Classical era with Haydn’s Symphony No. 92, the early nineteenth century with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 and Rossini’s “Overture” to The Barber of Seville. He reaches back to the Baroque with Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4.
Each of the four concerts includes earlier and later works. I talked with Lewis about this obvious arrangement. Lewis explains that the pattern makes a point:
Well, I think when we play music from different centuries beside each other [as we are doing], it helps us to realize that it’s all the same. It’s very easy to ghettoize new music in a concert or [special presentation of] new music, which is very difficult for anyone to digest whether they like new music or not. Similarly, if we put only Baroque music or only classical music on a concert, we turn other people off with the program. The idea is that by putting different types beside each other, people stop seeing new music as a separate special category and view it as part of the same tradition of classical music.
Certainly the idea of the Western musical context helping to knit together music of the past and present applies to the Schoenberg piece and the Schumann Symphony No. 4. Lewis would like the audience to see the Second Chamber Symphony “as part of the line of German music. We have a piano concerto, which remained an extremely strange piece of music. It’s one of my favorite piano concertos . . . the second movement is very, very peculiar . . . and then Schumann’s fourth symphony, which also is a very turbulent emotional journey, but both pieces of repertoire are recognized as absolutely [belonging to the] central core of German pieces and at the time were very modern and very forward thinking, so I’m placing the Schoenberg with that. It sort of reveals his ancestry. Hearing the piece in the context of the other two pieces will give it a lot more sense than hearing it in isolation or with other twentieth-century pieces.”
Normally, the Schumann symphony is played by a large orchestra rather than a chamber group. I asked about Discovery Ensemble’s interest in the Schumann symphonies. Lewis is enthusiastic about performing the compositions: “I think we will definitely complete all the symphonies and do the First in 2014. We did the second symphony two years ago, the Rhenish last year. It’s been such a wonderful experience for me because Schumann is not the composer you would think of as writing for chamber orchestra . . . we think of it as a big, Austro-German orchestra sound. It’s been really fun to try to play it with a chamber orchestra, and of course, it’s fun to play them at all because they’re so out of fashion at the moment, and they’re played so infrequently. I don’t understand why. It’s been really great for me to work with the orchestra and spending a really long time to get to know the pieces.”
Discovery Ensemble’s educational component is particularly intriguing to me, given my background. I asked Lewis about that part of the mission; he describes the thrust of their program as hands-on:
Well, we bring the whole orchestra into a school, and each concert cycle [we] visit a number of schools. We pick a relatively small number so we can build a relationship with them and go back so that the kids get to know us. The kids learn about the instruments, learn about the music in an interesting way, and what’s so great is that they don’t have any barriers to get to know the music because we’re in their setting, in their environment, which takes away a huge barrier. Of course, the orchestra is young and not so distant in age from the kids, which also helps. [These visits] happen four times a year. And in between the major workshops, we have a range of mini-workshops, and that is when a string quartet, or a brass quintet, or a trio from the orchestra will go back to the schools and revisit. These smaller mini-workshops reinforce the impact of the big workshop. It gives the relationship that we have with the school more continuity; it reinforces what we’ve done before and it also means that the big workshops don’t just feel like a flash in the pan.
I asked Lewis to assess the development of Discovery Ensemble over these past four years. “Well,” he replies, “we’re playing more concerts than we were before . . . our education program is growing. I think that the quality of the personnel in the orchestra has improved. When you start out, it’s very difficult. We’re really working hard on building a strong board making the operation of the orchestra more reliable. Technically, we’re continuing on a more even path from where we began because we’ve always been very clear, David St. George [artistic director] and I, about the artistic and educational aims of the orchestra. Those are continuing on the same trajectory, but it’s very rewarding for me to see the institution growing and becoming more stable from an institutional perspective.”
I could not conclude the conversation without asking Lewis about his own growth. “Well, I don’t know how I can assess it,” he replies. “Discovery Ensemble has been wonderful for me in terms of [developing] as a conductor. We have so much rehearsal time together and quite often I can perform a piece with Discovery Ensemble for the first time. As I look at next season, I haven’t done any of the music on the first concert. I’ve done Beethoven’s Second on the second concert . . . we’ve played Stravinsky’s Concertantes on our very first season . . . on the third concert, we’ve done Rossini but not the Adams or the Haydn, and on the fourth concert, I haven’t done any of the music before, the Beethoven, Schoenberg, or the Schumann.”
“The orchestra has allowed me to get to know an enormous amount of repertoire,” he continues, “That’s helped me so much when I go to other orchestras, where of course, there is a lot less rehearsal, so that is how you grow enormously, really being able to get to know these pieces from the inside out. I’ve frequently performed symphonies [with other orchestras] that we’ve done with Discovery Ensemble. The concert that Michael McHale is coming to play with the Minnesota orchestra in November includes Schumann’s second symphony, which I did with Discovery Ensemble two years ago. It’s allowed me to grow enormously . . . and that’s the way that the Minnesota Orchestra position has allowed me to grow in terms of conducting a world-class, full- size symphony orchestra and getting used to what they need from a conductor, which is very different from what a chamber orchestra needs. [As for myself] I leave that to other people’s judgments.”