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Harbison “Bout of Un-relatedness” Between Two Chestnuts


Discovery Ensemble is a new orchestra made up of young local professional players. It is expertly directed by Courtney Lewis, an Englishman and one of their own, who founded the ensemble. Addressing the audience, he explained that earlier in the week, and in accordance with their stated mission, members of the group had been playing in the Boston Public Schools, including in Dorchester, where hundreds of children had never before heard an orchestra or been to a concert of any kind. The performance on January 24 at Emmanuel Church in Boston was an exciting demonstration of what this vigorous group can do.

Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1944), originally a ballet score for Martha Graham, is best known in its version for full orchestra, but the original version for 13 instruments (flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, strings) turns up from time to time. This performance, with a clear and luminous sound, was ideally suited to the opulent acoustics of the church. One could not have imagined a more loving performance of this melodically rich and harmonically transparent score. Those who remember the performance at the presidential inauguration last Tuesday know that John Williams was inspired by “The Gift to Be Simple,” the Shaker “Quick Dance” that Copland included in the penultimate variations in this very popular score.

In our ordinary concert experience, a concerto is a dialogue, the soloist or solo group exchanging musical information with the accompanying orchestra; but etymologically, from its Latin roots, a concerto is really a struggle, or at least a contest. John Harbison’s Concerto for Oboe, Clarinet, and Strings, composed in 1985, answers to the second description, a “bout of un-relatedness” as he put it, between the two solo instruments individually, and between the paired instruments and the “unwelcoming” strings. The result, at least to this listener hearing the work for the first time, was a work in which individual instrumental sound was de-emphasized in favor of an overall texture in which the blend is inescapably spicy.

One could not call this an expressive work; indeed, and by contrast, the most expressive and richly melodic writing was in the orchestral accompaniment during the Larghetto, while the oboe and clarinet were silent bystanders. In the outer movements there was plenty of activity for soloists playing together, and much of this was in the high register, pushing even higher; the middle register of both instruments was heard less often, and the overtone-rich low registers hardly at all. The orchestra for its part offered a variety of supporting textures: an alla marcia-like dotted pattern in the first movement that became a steady beat of single notes, like an impending crisis, in the second; then, a succession of fortissimo chordal shouts from the first movement reappeared with greater vigor in the third, with the rapid passagework of the solo instruments fighting at every step. What organized the total sound was harmony: though this music is intensely chromatic at nearly every moment, one never totally lost a background sense of diatonic C major at important junctures. In the slow movement, there was even a welcoming G pedal as in a classical concerto, introducing a cadenza for the two soloists; and at the end of the work, the cadenza formula expanded to include a bluesy dominant chord on G with B flat and B together, before the final dissonant tonic on C.

There are established repertories, not large ones, of concerti for oboe or clarinet, but very few concerti for two different woodwinds. Right now I think of Richard Strauss’s Duet Concertino for Clarinet and Bassoon, a thoroughly 19th-century piece written in 1947. Harbison’s double concerto is of an entirely different stripe, a well-balanced and exciting misalliance that symbolizes the heterogeneity of our concert life today — and that works very well indeed.

Peggy Pearson has been one of Boston’s most beloved oboists for many years, and she met the challenge of not-always-grateful partnership in this concerto with fleet fingers and brilliant tone. It was a pleasure to be introduced to an outstanding clarinetist, Denexxel Domingo, who played his demanding part fearlessly and with matchless skill.

The concert concluded with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C Major, KV 551, the “Jupiter,” and there were problems, above all in tempi. The

first movement, though marked Allegro vivace, was nevertheless too fast, acoustically speaking, to override the echo in the hall; so much articulation was lost that might have been more effectively heard at a slower but still lively pace. Some of the dynamics as well appeared too sudden and abrupt at the hurried tempo. It’s not that the orchestra couldn’t play the notes at high speed, because digital accuracy was never in doubt; but it would have been better to focus more on what the players had to offer. Much more successful was the expressive slow movement, with muted strings, and all of the orchestra’s cohesion and sensitivity to the complete sound were well realized. This movement has some fine drama, after all, in the unexpected twists and turns of chromatic harmony, and these were well outlined. The minuet is something we are also used to hearing somewhat slower; one wonders whether Mozart had the spirit of some of his later German dances in mind while writing this waltz-like movement. In the famous alla breve finale, the excessively fast tempo again hindered coherence of sound. (I remember hearing this finale at Tanglewood conducted at insane speed by Charles Munch; at the time, it was said that Munch’s beat was “one to the page.”) This Allegro molto is a tour de force of intense counterpoint with no less than five fugato motives tossed around the orchestra in different combinations and stretti. But at excessive speed the listener cannot concentrate on the rapidly-changing events, especially in a resonant setting where reverberation inevitably blurs the texture. But there was no mistaking the excitement of this performance, and the orchestra and audience enjoyed it to the full.

It is satisfying to welcome this new group to the ranks of Boston’s mature orchestras. We look forward with confidence to more discoveries, and many performances of high caliber.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.

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  1. Trying to locate Courtney Lewis for possible school engagements for Discovery Ensemble in Rhode Island and Southeastern MA. Contact: Lillian Edwards, President, Up With School Arts at this address or call 401-635-8383

    Comment by Lillian Edwards — January 29, 2009 at 9:51 pm

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