Young conductors on the rise locally have been a heartening sight and heartwarming earful. Sean Newhouse, summoned increasingly to the helm of the BSO, handled Sibelius, Prokofiev, and Britten with aplomb there a few weeks ago. Yesterday, Nov. 6, Courtney Lewis showed his mettle with Discovery Ensemble, both as music director, selecting a balanced live-wire span from Classical to World, and by wielding a deft baton with which he probed emotions in Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite and unearthed magic from Haydn’s Symphony No. 90 in C.
Lewis, a mere twenty-six himself, coaxed his young orchestra with grace and wit through Ravel’s stately, ordered, fairy-book world. The princess dreamed on in legato pastel bowers, and Tom Thumb was evoked in delicately expressive humors of piccolo and cello. Toy mandarins marched in measured pomp before their empress, as Lewis signaled for crystalline celeste and flutes or diminishing tam tam crashes with clear and precise gestures. Concertmistress Sharon Cohen was a poised Beauty to the stuttering Beast of contrabassoonist Luke Varland. Lewis laid down his baton for the Fairy Garden finale, kneading the air as he summoned the full orchestra to arrive at the fortissimo climax that seems to bloom majestically into ‘the real world.’
In preface to Julian Anderson’s Khorovod, a difficult chamber work for fifteen solo instruments, Lewis took a few cheerful moments to prepare the audience with listener call-outs: the opening cacophonous unison Cs, a swatch of Balkan folksong, a kaleiodoscopic malagueña (flamenco dance), a pastoral flute coda. Such amiable stake-holding tactics pay dividends — as Boston Pops’ Keith Lockhart and Lewis’s fellow Belfast native, Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh, know full well – helping listeners parse thorny works while befriending them. Indeed, Anderson’s fourteen-minute tour de force conjured sparse neo-jazzy Milton Babbitt, Harry Partch multi-mallet farragoes, George Crumb-like heady altissimo string and wind swirls, and multi-directional random “shoe-drops” (viz. George Rhoads’ Archimedes Excogitatus.) Lewis tamed this brawling earful with judicious and precise conducting of the ensemble’s sparkling musicians.
William Hudgins, principal clarinetist of the BSO, played a jaunty but warm and polished Copland Clarinet Concerto; Hudgins’s refreshing cadenzas balancing sotto voce asides with pungent shrill exclamations. The exuberant rondo freely blends American swing and Pan-American rhythms, which Lewis navigated expertly. Kudos to harpist Maria Rindenello-Parker and pianist Linda Osborne-Blackshe for supporting roles.
Lewis wrapped Papa Haydn’s Symphony No. 90 in a bear hug, bouncing emphatically on the rumbustious ländler dances while gently picking out the minuet’s spry, fairy-like flute solos. Repositioning the basses on his left allowed Lewis to capture antiphonal interplay between first violins (left) and second (right), which he accomplished with lightning figure-eight sweeps. He gamely shaded the dynamics of the dark and light adagio and used shorthand signals like a Roman traffic cop (like calling the basses’ recurring one-bar figure with a downward left throttle.) And when it comes time for jokester Haydn’s notorious fake ending (no, this isn’t even the “Surprise” Symphony), Lewis plays it to the hilt and takes the faked ending, like Count Basie’s April In Paris, irresistibly just “one more time” — twice! Yes, Lewis’ll be back in April – after stints as associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra and as (Music Director Gustavo) Dudamel Fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic – for Discovery Ensemble’s spring concert at Jordan Hall.
Note: A related article is here.
Fred Bouchard writes about music for Downbeat Magazine and All About Jazz, and about wine for Beverage Business; he lectures on jazz at Boston University, and teaches journalism and literature at Berklee College of Music.