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Serious Playfulness From Discovery


Courtney Lewis conducts the Discovery Ensemble (file photo)

The Discovery Ensemble kicked off its 2012-2013 season with delightful works from the 18th– and 20th -centuries, highlighting the many ways that dance music interacts with form to convey a rich variety of experiences: from pastoral rhythms (Mozart), to urban grit (Piazzolla), to registers of temperature (Villa-Lobos) and to transcendent magnificence (Bach).

Sundays’ concert at Jordan Hall opened with Mozart’s Symphony No. 28 in C, K.200, written when the composer was 17 or 18 and living in Salzburg. Under the guidance of Michael Haydn, Mozart was expanding the expressive force of his symphonies, and the 28th hints at such future works as the Jupiter and The Magic Flute. Courtney Lewis, who confided in the pre-concert lecture that “Mozart is always the most difficult, as there is no place to hide,” took the first movement at a brisk and lively pace, with a touch of orchestral lushness; especially notable was the playing of Zachary Boeding, principal oboe. The andante was full of beautiful pastels, followed by an expansive, leisurely minuet. The presto finale surprised us with a feisty interplay between strings and winds, creating a sweeping upheaval full of future promise, and a touch of foreboding.

Piazzolla’s Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas, (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires), which were written by Piazzola between 1965 and 1969 as separate nuevo tango pieces for performance by his bandoneón quintet came next. They were reworked by Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov for solo violin and string orchestra who added quotations from the Vivaldi Four Seasons. Each season has a single movement, but divided into three sections as in the Vivaldi. Violin soloist Joshua Weilerstein, former concertmaster of the Discovery Ensemble and currently Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic, gave it both excitement and an earthy depth. His Summer went from passionate to tender and loving, back to the dark undercurrents of Piazzola’s original concept. Autumn featured a long, wistful cello solo, played beautifully by principal cello Michal Shein, concluding with a virtuosic cadenza from Weilerstein. Winter (our Summer!) evoked a feeling of sadness and longing in the form of a dark tango, followed by a return to life with Spring, opened by concertmaster Julia Noone and closed with a stunningly impressive cadenza by Weilerstein. One came away with the feeling that all of urban life, with its chaotic grit and bustle, is encompassed in Piazzolla’s tangos.

The second half of the concert juxtaposed Villa-Lobos and Bach. Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote the nine Bachianas Brasileiras, tributes to Bach in the Brazilian style, over an extended period from 1930-1945. Number 9 is the last of them, made up of a prelude and fugue for string orchestra, with an optional chorus. Villa-Lobos has been quoted as saying that Bach represents “a universal folkloric source … The music of Bach comes from the astral infinite to infiltrate itself in the earth as folk music.”  This very motion from a cool outer infinity to a place of earthly warmth was nicely reproduced by Discovery. The short piece started with a haunting and mysterious (vagaroso è mistico) prelude, led with solemn depth of feeling by principal viola Wenting Kang. The grave and Sibelius-like prelude gave way to a deeply moving and powerful Bach-inspired fugue in an unusual 11/8 meter that built to a hot, Brazilian, hymn-like conclusion.

The concert concluded by going back to the source. The Bach Orchestral Suite No. 4, with its dance motifs embedded in Baroque form, was performed with rare brilliance. Lewis took his cue from the fact that Bach used the first movement again in his Christmas Cantata, No. 110, Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (Let our mouths be full of laughter).  Rather than interpreting the piece as courtly ceremony, Lewis gave it a deeply spiritual reading. As Lewis told us before the concert, while the previous dances had pulled downward, the Bach “kept wanting to float upward.”   This was especially notable in Bourée II with Michal Shein’s cello solo and in the elegant Menuets. The final Réjouissance was a burst of light, the three orchestral choirs tied by Suzanne Cartreine’s beautifully inaudible harpsichord, lifting our hearts to a beautifully invisible God.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. For an interesting alternate take on the Piazzola, arranged for guitar, accordion and chamber orchestra, give a listen to this CD from A Far Cry:

    Comment by John Emery — October 23, 2012 at 10:55 am

  2. Wow. Thank you, John Emery. The Discovery continues! The accordion gives it a more literal feel, more tactile. (?)

    Comment by Ashley — October 23, 2012 at 5:01 pm

  3. It’s very interesting to note that Jeremy Eichler, reviewing for The Globe, had such a different reaction than the reviewer to the Bach. Eichler felt that it “lacked specificity of intention.” I’m curious to hear what others felt. I myself, perhaps like the reviewer, had heard Lewis describe his spiritual interpretation, so I was able to hear a precise musical focus. I brought my own memory of the Christmas cantata to the Discovery performance — indeed I even felt that I was discovering it in a new way. I liked that it seemed to burst the boundaries of its own baroque formalism. And I felt that the preceding Villa-Lobos had opened a new way of hearing the Bach.

    Comment by Ashley — October 24, 2012 at 8:54 am

  4. I agree with Eichler that the Bach started out ragged and disorganized, while the woodwinds in the last movement were outstanding. I decided not to focus on the faults because the power of Discovery’s interpretation was, to me, more important. Also, I would hate to see Bach given over solely to period instrument orchestras.

    Comment by Leon Golub — October 24, 2012 at 9:59 am

  5. The performance of the Mozart Symphony # 28 was perfection itself in every sense of the word. Previous hearings both live and recorded bored me to the point of falling asleep. Here we were rewarded with an exciting,vital and beautiful interpretation.

    The Piazzola was a revelation in many aspects. No one has mentioned in detail the overwhelming
    performance given by Joshua Weilerstein. Always an exciting performer, Weilerstein has now achieved
    an unequaled level of perfection as has the Discovery Ensemble at least for the first half of the concert.

    Comment by Ed Burke — October 24, 2012 at 11:28 am

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