in: Reviews

April 16, 2012

Discovery’s Characteristic Verve and Energy

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Juxtaposing traditional works with more recent music is a credo of Discovery Ensemble, this program being yet another brilliant realization of that goal. On Friday evening, the hottest ticket in town was — or should have been — the latest program from this group, at Jordan Hall. Music Director Courtney Lewis was back at what he does best, delivering a program thoughtfully conceived, meticulously rehearsed, and memorable and dynamic in execution. (Another less visible but admirable aspect of their program is reaching out to Boston children through the offering of these programs in local schools.)

The contrasts in dynamics which characterize the Beethoven “Leonore” Overture were great fodder for Maestro Lewis, who appears obviously to enjoy turning his group on a dime and also utilizing silence to heighten dramatic utterance. His youthful energy and surprisingly mature perceptions of the music combine to create a unique blend of light and dark, fire and ice. Kyle Spraker’s offstage trumpet solo seemed utterly assured and created just the right foil to the dramatic events unfurling onstage. It is hard to imagine a more convincing performance of this work. Bravos all around!

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Mania, for cello and orchestra, followed a long pause for resetting the stage, and it was especially interesting to hear this piece because of Salonen’s presence in town on the same weekend to conduct the BSO in a program that included the Boston premiere of his own violin concerto. To my ears, the Salonen seemed focused principally on textures, sometimes at the cost of melody, harmony, and even a clear vision of where things appeared to be going. Cellist Kacy Clapton was the superb soloist, and the smallish ensemble and Lewis had everything very much in control. Percussionist Brian Maloney offered virtuoso playing throughout; it seemed surprising that he was not acknowledged personally by Lewis, who in his pre-concert remarks had mentioned how demanding this was for the player.

Although the opening section, with cello very much in evidence, seemed to me a bit curious and dull, soon enough there were more interesting, somewhat Romantic gestures, and the combination of woodwind and percussion (notably the wood blocks) made for clear, colorful, convincing music. Perhaps a few moments of more static gesture would have set individual sections off in better perspective. Texture was the word which kept popping into my mind as we listened. And “manic” was indeed the word to describe the frenetic, headlong rush of the closing few minutes of this piece. It will be interesting to see if this piece takes a place in the cello/small orchestra canon.

Ironically, the austerity and contrast of the Salonen work had the effect of making the next work on the program, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, a welcome and sumptuous banquet. I have never heard a better reading of this piece, on recordings or in concert. Lewis stepped to the podium, standing quietly without a gesture, letting the flutist begin on her own. The music appeared almost to come out of the earth and into the light, a characteristic that stayed with us in this performance. With this brilliant, youthful band of performers, every turn of phrase evoked something as beautiful as the moment before, and it nearly made me feel I was hearing the piece for the first time. The Salonen seemed light years away from the unapologetic beauty and magic of Debussy’s music.

Mozart’s 39th Symphony rounded out the program, in a performance of characteristically Lewis verve and energy, and with these splendid young players fairly jumping out of their seats to give the Maestro what he wanted. The outer movements were dashing but substantive, the second movement lush and expressive, and the minuet an invitation to the dance. Lewis slowed the tempo just a smidge for the trio, which set it off in exactly the right way. All in all, a reading of integrity and complete commitment.

Anyone who has not heard this group and conductor should keep an eye out for next season’s programs. Let us hope that Discovery Ensemble will be on the Boston scene for many years to come.

Brian Jones is Emeritus Director of Music and Organist at Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston, where he directed an acclaimed program from 1984-2004. Active as organ solo artist and guest conductor, he has performed widely in the United States, Canada, England, Mexico, and Bermuda. His website is here.
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2 Comments

  1. A fair review.  To sample the force with which the Beethoven was played, try to find the 1939
    Toscanini/NBC recording.  Next, a piece as complex as “Mania” takes more than one hearing
    to assess.  Finally, to my delight, Lewis took all the repeats in Mozart 39, including those in
    the Minuet, which are often skimped, and the development-recapitulation repeat  in the last movement, reminding us of his Sanders performance of Haydn’s 90th, with its multiple false endings.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — April 17, 2012 at 1:02 pm

  2. At last a well deserved, excellent, accurate review of the superb Discovery Ensemble and the inspired Courtney Lewis.

    Unfortunately, in the past, this amazing group has been largely overlooked by critics and the media.

    Let’s hope that New England’s best kept musical secret will be performing to sold out houses
    in future.  There are 4 concerts scheduled for next season.

    Comment by Ed Burke — April 23, 2012 at 12:36 am

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