There is a great deal of talk these days about “mission statements,” and such proclamations seem worthwhile when one encounters a musical organization which truly lives up to its stated ideals. Sunday afternoon, October 2, at Sanders Theatre, we were treated by the Discovery Ensemble to an energetic, informed, committed and altogether inspiring program that spoke eloquently to the goals of this group.
Music Director Courtney Lewis has molded his players, some of the area’s finest young students/professionals, into a chamber orchestra of impressive accomplishment. He is also a very creative programmer, as Sunday’s concert proved, and he’s as at home with modern music as he is with a Beethoven Symphony.
Britten’s fascinating Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, written in haste to meet a deadline, established Britten (in 1937 at the age of 24) as a composer to be reckoned with. From the opening bold gestures, it was clear that Lewis loves this music and that he had imparted that affection, as well as a generous dose of insight, to his stellar band, who played as though their lives depended on it. The music ranges from original to eclectic, and was intended originally to hint at characteristics of Bridge’s personality (a colleague talked Britten out of that idea, and the movements are named, ranging broadly, from a “Wiener Walzer” to a Funeral March.) The music spins along with dizzying color, ingenious use of dynamics (beautifully realized in this performance), a tonal language which seems unusually mature for the 24-year-old Britten, and a wide variety of textures and harmonic/melodic expression which range from lightest gossamer to rich, quasi-Romantic sumptuousness.
The performance was handled cogently and convincingly in a way that invited the listener into its sound world, at the same time flowing inexorably, seamlessly and with perfect timing from one movement to the next. This has to be difficult music to play, but none of the players seemed vexed or challenged by the extreme demands of range or dynamic, and they were clearly enjoying every minute of it. They resembled a field of grass through which the wind blew, in a manner which reminded me of the Cleveland Orchestra in the days of George Szell. I found myself wishing it hadn’t ended so soon, and grateful for the opportunity to have heard this fascinating work.
Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Six Monologues from “Jedermann” were next on the program, when the orchestra was joined by baritone Christopheren Nomura. Martin’s desire to write for a broad audience, and his own adaptation of the 12-tone scale — very different from Schoenberg’s, were evident here, though the score is not, to my ears, one of Martin’s most interesting works. Nonetheless, Nomura’s compelling delivery and Lewis and the orchestra’s sensitive accompaniment made of this rather dark music all it possibly could have been. The baritone has a stage presence which aurally and visually takes one squarely into the heart of these gripping texts, in which the facing of death is struggled with, and ultimately embraced, in a traditionally Christian way.
Rounding out the program was a vigorous, transparent and altogether satisfying reading of the Beethoven 7th Symphony. The tempos were — to say the least — brisk, and I wondered at the start of the famous second movement whether too fast, but within a few moments it felt exactly right, as phrases unfurled in an utterly convincing way. This was a performance which was rich but completely lucid at the same time. Lewis may look the part of matinee-idol on the podium, but his musical intelligence and depth go far beyond mere visceral energy: the dynamics, clear textures, and depth of insight he drew from the orchestra were all at the service of the music. We went out into the late afternoon grateful for a program which had elevated and inspired us in all the right ways. Don’t miss the Discovery Ensemble’s upcoming programs on Nov 6 and April 13.
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 www.brianjonesmusic.com.