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.