Concert Review: Discovery Ensemble at Sanders Theater

John Adams’s Chamber Symphony brought out the best in Mr. Lewis as a conductor: it was fun watching him maneuver through the score’s intricate rhythmic patterns, and his confidence was reflected by the ensemble in a brash, involved reading of a far-too-little-heard (in these parts, at least) piece.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Discovery Ensemble — one of Boston’s not-to-miss groups.

“Sparkling wit” and “dazzling color” were two of the adjectives used to introduce the Discovery Ensemble’s third program of the season, presented on Friday night at Sanders Theater in Cambridge, MA. Music director Courtney Lewis conducted the group in a concert that lived up to its billing and further cemented the Discovery Ensemble as one of Boston’s not-to-miss groups.

Rossini overtures don’t turn up on orchestra programs with as much regularity as they once did, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Still, the Overture to The Barber of Seville, which began Friday’s concert, hasn’t suffered from neglect: it remains familiar from television, movies, and, of course, the opera house, where it is heard regularly. On Friday, Mr. Lewis and Discovery Ensemble teased out the seriousness in Rossini’s frothy curtain raiser, essentially making it the straight man on the evening’s program. The slow opening was marked by rhythmic precision and some delicate oboe playing from principal Zachary Boeding, while the brisk second part boldly emphasized the music’s dramatic contrasts. Mr. Lewis’s decision to seat the violins across from each other on the stage further brought out the score’s contrapuntal textures and occasional symphonic pretentions.

Things loosened up nicely in the next piece, John Adams’s 1992 Chamber Symphony. Written at a significant stylistic crossroad for the composer, it is a fearsomely virtuosic work cast in three movements that eschews the broadly diatonic, minimalist patterns that were a hallmark of Mr. Adams’s music in the ’70s and ‘80s in favor of a more complex, chromatic aesthetic. That said, it’s hardly a forbidding piece. Vertiginous as the counterpoint may be, it’s music chock full of humor and common cultural touchstones—from cartoons and video game music to jazz and ragtime.

In his memoirs, Mr. Adams wrote about the piece’s main difficulties: in addition to demanding the utmost rhythmic concentration and technical abilities of the players, it can be enormously challenging to balance Chamber Symphony’s disparate instrumentation. And that was a problem—really the only problem—during Friday’s performance. Too often the strings, especially violinist Julia Noone and violist Wenting Kang, were covered by the brass and winds. This was especially frustrating when the violin is given foreground material: though the notes and technical demands were easily under her control, whole stretches of the first movement sounded like Ms. Noone was playing in another room. Happily, her big solo in the finale was realized with lots of flair and volume.

Composer John Adams — His Chamber Symphony presents challenges when it comes to balancing its disparate instrumentation.

The rest of the ensemble dispatched their parts with equal vigor but better—sometimes maybe too much—projection. Special praise is due percussionist Brian Maloney, who navigated his battery of instruments with color and breathtaking precision; trombonist Christopher Moore and principal bass John Michael Shiu, for their realization of their duets in the second movement (titled “Aria with Walking Bass”); principal flute Bianca Garcia and oboist Jennifer Slowik for their commanding performances of their tightrope parts throughout; and keyboardist Linda Osborn, who managed the synthesizer part with sureness and sensitivity.

As in Discovery Ensemble’s December performance of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Five Images after Sappho, the Adams Chamber Symphony brought out the best in Mr. Lewis as a conductor: it was fun watching him maneuver through the score’s intricate rhythmic patterns, and his confidence was reflected by the ensemble in a brash, involved reading of a far-too-little-heard (in these parts, at least) piece.

Balance problems disappeared in the two pieces that followed intermission, Stravinsky’s Danses concertantes and Haydn’s Symphony no. 92.

Stravinsky’s turn to Neo-classicism is surely one of the strangest twists in the history of twentieth-century music, as Friday’s performance of this reinvention of the Classical orchestra demonstrated. Written as a connected, five-movement balletic scene (originally composed for the concert stage), Danses concertantes contains numerous references to past composers but spiked with Stravinsky’s (at the time) piquant harmonic language.

Mr. Lewis and Discovery Ensemble brought out the music’s charm and strangeness in equal measure, with tightly focused string playing and crisp, incisive blending of the wind instruments. Of particular note was the ensemble playing of Ms. Garcia, Mr. Boeding, and clarinetist Denexxel Domingo, whose vital performances in the Thème varié and Pas de Deux brought out the warm humanity in this decidedly abstract music.

The evening’s greatest triumph, though, was Haydn’s so-called “Oxford” Symphony. Written in 1789 when he was at the height of his powers, there’s nothing about the piece that could really be classified as surprising—if you know the “Paris” or “London” symphonies, you know what to expect in “Oxford.” What is remarkable about the symphony (and much of Haydn’s catalogue, generally), though, is the sheer freshness and invention of Haydn’s musical rhetoric: there’s nothing tired or pedantic about it, even after 92 efforts in the genre.

Courtney Lewis conducing the Discovery Ensemble

And there was nothing tired or academic about Friday’s performance, which featured Discovery Ensemble’s full complement. Though the first movement took a little while to settle, it soon turned into a nicely shaped account of what is a remarkably lilting symphonic movement. The flowing melodies of the slow second unfolded as inevitably as anything by Beethoven, and the subsequent minuet positively bubbled with life, capturing all the music’s sophisticated humor and charm—few, indeed, are the times I’ve come away from a performance of a Classical symphony remembering so powerfully what all too often is a throwaway movement, but this was one of those occasions. The finale was a bit ragged, thanks more to high spirits and fast tempos than anything else, but it’s hard to complain considering the palpable enthusiasm of the orchestra.

As in the Stravinsky, the wind playing was top notch: Ms. Garcia and Mr. Boeding were perfectly in sync (and tune) with the strings in the second movement, creating luminous sonorities. Again, antiphonal seating of the violins illuminated Haydn’s many contrapuntal textures and served to fill the orchestral space nicely: the symphony’s inner parts were all readily audible and added much to the experience of hearing this music in the context of Adams, Stravinsky, et al.

Astonishingly, only one more concert remains of Discovery Ensemble’s 2012-13 season, and that’s in April. If you haven’t caught them in concert yet this year, be sure to do it then. Hopefully, in future the group will be able to present twice as many concerts as it now does and maybe do subscription series, too. Until then, we’ll have to settle for less and keep wanting more—which is, of course, much more desirable than the other way.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts