Concert Review: Discovery Ensemble/Courtney Lewis at Sanders Theater

Bravo to Courtney Lewis and the Discovery Ensemble for programming Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Five Images After Sappho and pulling off such an engrossing performance.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Courtney Lewis conducting the Discovery Ensemble in April 2012. Photo: Tony Rinaldo.

For those who needed one last hit of engaging programming before the holiday season’s musical traditions really get swinging, Sanders Theater was the place to be on Sunday afternoon. Music director Courtney Lewis led the Discovery Ensemble in a concert of three works built around Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 13-year-old Five Images after Sappho: Bartók’s Divertimento for string orchestra began the program, and Beethoven’s Symphony no. 2 closed it.

The Divertimento is one of Bartók’s late scores, composed in 1939 just before he and his wife left the increasingly Nazified environs of Hungary for the United States. Yet you wouldn’t really be able to tell that from the music, which is nearly as accessible as the much better known Concerto for Orchestra. Indeed, the Divertimento is Bartók at his most neo-Classical and affable: the Haydn-esque finale features several genuinely humorous moments, which were greeted (on more than one occasion) with knowing chuckles from Sunday’s audience.

Mr. Lewis and the strings of the ensemble certainly captured the lighthearted moments in the finale, but, on the whole, this was a performance that would have benefited from greater rhythmic intensity, especially in its first two movements. In the opening, there were many beautiful passages, to be sure, particularly the recurring solo/tutti exchanges, but the music ambled along a bit too peaceably and took a while to settle in: the group sounded rather distant in the not enormous space in Sanders.

By the time the second movement began, the balance was better, and the movement’s hushed opening was one of the most perfectly realized passages of the performance. While the group captured many of the movement’s dynamic contrasts well, there was little sense of the terror that often haunts Bartók’s other “night music” movements, and the sudden bursts of frenzy were more loud than startling. In the finale, though, everything came together for a spirited romp that was high on energy and levity.

Local audiences have ample of opportunities to encounter the Beethoven symphonies in concert, but it’s rare that they’re placed in any sort of interesting, musical context. Sunday’s concert was an exception to that sad rule, and it made for a invigorating close to the afternoon.

Mr. Lewis drew a taut, focused reading from the full ensemble that reveled in the youthful exuberance of the piece, especially its play of contrasts. There were moments (in the outer movements, especially) that felt dangerously fast, and the group’s ensemble playing wasn’t quite as clean as it might otherwise have been—but that’s just the type of playing that makes many of Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic recordings from the ‘60s so compelling, and I couldn’t help but draw the comparison here.

This was a Beethoven Second marked by committed playing, high energy, not a little virtuosity, and lots of spirit. The brass suspensions at the end of the first movement rang gloriously, the succession of feints at a coda in the finale reminded listeners just how much Beethoven learned from Haydn, and both middle movements were wonders of textural clarity and pacing. Coming on the heels of two less familiar twentieth-century scores, the Beethoven still sounded like the program’s oldest piece, but the context it appeared in charged the music with freshness and electricity and made it seem as if it was being heard for the first time—and that’s mighty hard to pull off these days with anything by Beethoven.

Between the two B’s came the program’s highlight. Boston audiences have had several chances in 2012 to hear music by Esa-Pekka Salonen (courtesy of the Discovery Ensemble and the Boston Symphony—on the same weekend in April, no less), a composer whose music (to these ears, at least) is often marked by a viridity and openness lacking in many Modernist and neo-Romantic offerings.

The texts of Five Images are drawn from “the ancient Sappho fragments” and were arranged into five movements by the composer. Between them, they recount the romantic awakening of a young girl, progressing from the first stirrings of love to her wedding. On Sunday, soprano Karin Wolverton gave a very satisfying performance of the virtuosic solo part, projecting the text with a clear, strong tone. There were some periodic issues with diction and balance, but, for the most part, these righted themselves on their own.

Courtney Lewis conducting the Discovery Ensemble in April 2012. Photo: Tony Rinaldo.

Five Images is particularly accessible since Salonen based its harmony on pentatonic pitch collections. As with nearly all of his mature music, it also blazes with color: the percussion section alone (gamely managed on Sunday by Thomas Schmidt) takes up most of the stage and includes (among other things) bongos, a marimba, a set of tuned gongs, and a deeply resonant, Thai nipple gong.

Despite the size of the percussion section, it is always used discreetly and never dominates the scene, aurally. The reduced ensemble (14 players) gave picturesque accounts of Salonen’s kaleidoscopic writing, vividly bringing to life the depiction of a whirlwind in the work’s second movement, a nervous frenzy in the third, and haunting mystery in the fourth.

This is ear-catching music to hear on disc; when played with the focus and conviction heard on Sunday, it is positively thrilling to hear in concert. Bravo to Lewis and the Discovery Ensemble for programming it and pulling off such an engrossing performance: though it’s not the last concert of the year, Sunday’s made a marvelous capstone to a strong year of music making on both sides of the Charles. The group returns to Sanders in two months for another brilliant program featuring pieces by Stravinsky, Rossini, Haydn, and John Adams. Don’t miss it.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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