in: Reviews

March 18, 2011

Emotion Comes, Goes, in Discovery Ensemble

by

One of the more recent additions to the Boston classical scene, the youthful Discovery Ensemble, founded and directed by Courtney Lewis, romanticized while raising the roof at least a few times and raising questions at others. Their appearance at Sanders Theatre on Thursday evening, March 17, in “Three Faces of Romanticism: Music of Wagner, Schreker and Schumann” received squalls of applause amid hoots and whistles from a noticeably small, loyal following.

When, in fact, were the roof’s rafters raised? The fifth and final movement of Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 97, the “Rhenish,” danced as directed—Lebhaft, lively. Lewis himself danced on the podium. The potential of the orchestra, not to be questioned at this point as they responded in every way to their conductor, found Schumann, with his off-beat pulsing and quicksilver, always catchy, quirkiness; and they gave it everything they had.  It could be said that, albeit it shouldn’t be that way, the moment was worth the wait.

Much of the time, poetics of these various faces of Romanticism eluded the director, though not altogether; rather, just often missing that edge that raises listening to feeling, that step, sometimes ever so small, we look for in our musical experience. Not so the lighter sides of the Germans. The orchestra came fully to life in the not-so-serious sections of the one-movement Chamber Symphony of Austrian composer Franz Schreker (1878-1934). Harp and string strumming set the tone for the winds in their attractive, childlike playfulness.

Are they ready, though, for Harvard’s big space in Cambridge, or is it somewhat premature for this fledging “chamber orchestra that draws together forty of the finest performing musicians in Boston,” all of whom are bracingly quite young? Certainly the prestige and acoustics of Sanders is inviting.

It might be that word has not yet made its way around despite having received positive reviews here in the Boston Musical Intelligencer as well as elsewhere. While that remains to be seen, one still has to wonder how many performance organizations of this kind Boston is capable of sustaining. Will Discovery Ensemble be able to carve a niche for itself in the coming years that will find a larger listenership? When will we know the results of their endeavors to cultivate tomorrow’s audiences from inner-city schools? Are such efforts being tracked?

“Three Faces of Romanticism” did, to its credit, expose Schreker’s music, relatively unknown. Along with the two well-known faces, their programming follows a typical formula around these days. Another even bigger challenge (an ongoing one for years even for the Boston Symphony Orchestra), continues to be that of audience development and, more particularly, the matter of cutting across generations. As one critic put it, speaking about both A Far Cry and Discovery Ensemble, their appeal is not directed to Boston’s “sober” audiences. What on earth could he have meant? Has he forgotten the likes of, say, the New England Conservatory Philharmonia, or what the energetic and young conductor Frederico Cortese has been bringing to the Boston classical musical scene?

Discovery Ensemble is, after all, in its formative years. The forty players, who seem to be 20-something, are certainly accomplished, dedicated performers to the very last one. Seasoned enough? That is harder to determine from last night’s concert, which was the first time I had heard them. German Romanticism from talented Courtney Lewis found discipline over feeling. In Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll — his well-known dedicatory music to his wife, Cosima — Lewis over-achieved the softer dynamic markings in the score, denying richness to the strings. His whole approach, careful in considerable detail, kindled little emotion in but a few of the exuberant passages. For the young conductor, those poignant, speechless passages, the quiet long-held harmonies recurring throughout simply became resting places.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. www.notescape.net

8 Comments

  1. The Discovery Ensemble concert was everything that Mr. Patterson failed to mention: a brilliant and impassioned collaboration between musicians and conductor who performed with a sensitivity rarely achieved by so-called world class symphonic ensembles. The technique of the playing was nothing short of astounding. I wonder if the reviewer attended the same concert!

    Despite his seemingly impressive credentials, it appears to me that Mr. Patterson has no comprehension of the word “interpretation”. Conductor Courtney Lewis personifies INTERPRETATION. I was thrilled to overhear in the lobby after the concert, three of Boston’s best known musical authorities raving in ecstatic terms about every aspect of the amazing performances. Quaking with excitement… they were like “kids in a candy store”. And no, I’ll not reveal any names except to say that all are often extremely critical. The small, amazingly quiet, attentive audience was unanimous in their enthusiastic applause. But then,as has often been said, “there’s one in every crowd”… Mr. Patterson.

    One assumes that all who review concerts for BMIT have great hopes that all local classical music organizations, large or small, fledgling or long established, will be successful and increase the size of the audience despite current “bad times”. Instead, Mr. Patterson makes contradictory and absurd statements which are impossible to fathom… He wrote: “Are they ready, though, for Harvard’s big space in Cambridge, or is it somewhat premature for this fledging “chamber orchestra that draws together forty of the finest performing musicians in Boston,” all of whom are bracingly quite young? Certainly the prestige and acoustics of Sanders is inviting.

    It might be that word has not yet made its way around despite having received positive reviews here in the Boston Musical Intelligencer as well as elsewhere. While that remains to be seen, one still has to wonder how many performance organizations of this kind Boston is capable of sustaining. Will Discovery Ensemble be able to carve a niche for itself in the coming years that will find a larger listenership? When will we know the results of their endeavors to cultivate tomorrow’s audiences from inner-city schools? Are such efforts being tracked?”

    Ready for…Sanders? This is the third season of three concerts The Discovery Ensemble has presented there… Harvard’s “big space”… Gee, I always thought that was Harvard Stadium which certainly may have presige but no acoustics! Your whole attitude, Mr. Patterson, places you at the forefront of the persistent and long established group of Bostonian “nay-sayers” dating back to 1914: at that time, these folks didn’t react with dismay at the demise of the Boston Opera Company…” We don’t need the Opera..we have Symphony.”

    Yes, good ol’ Boston…provincialism is alive and well!

    Finally re: tomorrow’s audience..results..inner city schools…efforts being tracked…. when will we know the size and quality of 2014’s orange crop? Absurdity in Excelsis!

    Comment by Ed Burke — March 19, 2011 at 9:09 pm

  2. I endorse Mr. Burke’s comments. What I miss in the original review is a specific:
    whether the “over-achieved” softer dynamics were contrary to the score. A reviewer
    saying such things should, as Virgil Thomson said many years ago, and as Gunther Schuller
    says in his book on conducting, cite the score, e.g. “pp” and say that they played “ppp.”
    Did they or didn’t they?

    Next, Sanders is not so prestigious, nor does it have such good acoustics when 20% full.
    Anyway, who’s to know whether we have too many good (new) groups in Boston.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — March 21, 2011 at 7:02 pm

  3. I wonder how small the audience was. There was no decent cheap seats left when I inquired. Does not selling the balcony help or hurt?

    They’d have a larger audience if they had a mailing list you could subscribe to.

    Comment by Bill — March 21, 2011 at 9:42 pm

  4. I noticed missing quotation marks around the beginning of Mr. Patterson’s remarks which I posted in my “review” … the words below are his and my comments followed them in his original review.

    “It might be that word has not yet made its way around despite having received positive reviews here in the Boston Musical Intelligencer as well as elsewhere. While that remains to be seen, one still has to wonder how many performance organizations of this kind Boston is capable of sustaining. Will Discovery Ensemble be able to carve a niche for itself in the coming years that will find a larger listenership? When will we know the results of their endeavors to cultivate tomorrow’s audiences from inner-city schools? Are such efforts being tracked?”

    RE: Bill’s comment. Yes, I do much prefer the balcony in most concert venues. I’m certain that at this point in time, with poor attendence, The Discovery Ensemble would rather have the small audience concentrated together rather than seated in small pockets throughout Sanders Theatre thus helping to lessen the decidedly negative impact on the acoustics created by empty seats.

    Sanders, Jordan Hall and Symphony Hall, despite the media hype, do not have perfect acoustics throughout…No venue does. One can even notice an enormous acoustic varience within the same row one or two seats away! I sat one seat away from my usual spot at the concert and noticed the sound was vastly inferior!

    The size of an audience has absolutely nothing to do with the talent of the performers. Some of the most thrilling and memorable concerts I’ve attended have been free and often rather poorly attended. The average concertgoer is suspicious and feels that free means 3rd rate.

    Since the cost of promoting awareness of concerts to the listening public via advertising is enormously expensive, such relative newcomers like The Discovery Ensemble must count on the enthusiasm of their audience to “spead the word” and urge friends to attend.

    Comment by Ed Burke — March 22, 2011 at 6:17 pm

  5. The concert was so spectacular that I was able to ignore the inferior acoustics from my seat.

    BTW audience members can sign up to be on the mailing list or put friend’s names there at the concert.
    I strongly believe that serious music lovers are morally obligated to support non-profit performing arts institutions with generous financial contributions. GIVE ’til it HURTS!

    Comment by Ed Burke — March 22, 2011 at 7:49 pm

  6. I wasn’t looking for a seat in the balcony because of the acoustics. I was looking for a cheap seat that wasn’t necessarily a bad seat.

    Nice to know that you can sign up for their mailing list if you attend a concert. But you can’t on the web and they don’t seen to respond to email.

    I’d like to give them a try, but they’re making it tough.

    Comment by Bill — March 23, 2011 at 1:27 pm

  7. One last response to Bill: Ticket prices, I have learned, were $35, $28, and $20.
    $20 is definitely a cheap seat to a good orchestral performance, and the empty
    mezzanine seats were in good if not perfect locations for Sanders.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — March 23, 2011 at 4:27 pm

  8. The box office had only seats in the far fringes one hour before the concert. Maybe other pay $20 and move to more expensive seats?

    Comment by Bill — March 23, 2011 at 5:10 pm

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