in: Reviews

February 3, 2013

Discovering Complicated Fun

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According to its Music Director, Courtney Lewis, the theme of Discovery Ensemble’s third concert of the season on February 1st at Sanders Theatre was fun: all the works on it, from Haydn and Rossini to Stravinsky and Adams, were imbued with a spirit of playfulness. And so they were, more or less, though as usual the real story is more complicated.

The program proper followed a pre-concert talk-cum-interview of Lewis by WCRB host James David Jacobs. Audience members seeking program notes for these concerts are well advised to skip the big dinner and arrive at 7, since Discovery’s programs do not include them. When discussing the concert’s first work, the Rossini overture now identified with The Barber of Seville, Lewis allowed as how warhorses like these need some juicing up to keep them fresh for audiences—a perfectly sensible point of view. In this case,  in addition to the well crafted phrasing and virtuosic crescendo that bespeak a well-thought-out and executed rendition, the juicing consisted of taking the whole thing at a tempo even faster than the usual brisk pace. That must have been heaps of fun for the performers getting through Rossini’s frantic passagework!

Of course, the truly funny thing about this overture is that, like so many of its companions in Rossini’s œuvre, it wasn’t written for the opera for which it’s best known. This one was written three years earlier for Aureliano in Palmira, and then reused for Elizabeth, Queen of England, before being applied to Barber. Since neither of those earlier two was a comedy, the joke is a bit on the audience in trying to find in the overture the sparkle and fun characteristic of the opera proper.

The second work on the program, closing the first half, was fun of a different sort. The Chamber Symphony (no. 1, but no. 2 doesn’t have a number, just the jokey title “Son of Chamber Symphony”) of John Adams, written in 1992, is a work of meta-music that is about the other sorts of music that influenced Adams, some overt and some not. Structured, named and sized with reference to Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, the outer movements are giddy romps through a variety of styles (the first movement, originally intended to be titled “Discipline and Punish” for, among other reasons, the demands it makes on the players, was retitled “Mongrel Airs” in response to British critics who thought his music lacked breeding). Actually, the first movement is, to our ears, a lot about the compression and expansion of time values in its mostly scalar materials, and the overall effect shows the influence of Ives, whom Adams has explicitly honored in other pieces. The central slow movement, called “Aria with walking bass” is exactly as billed, with a scalar tune offset, Bach-like, against wandering scales in fixed rhythms in the contrabass and the synthesizer, which contributes some cheerfully cheesy video-game sonorities. The finale, called “Roadrunner,” is a high-speed chase that nods to the scores for Warner Brothers cartoons, many of whose composers, Lewis averred in his introduction, had studied with Schoenberg in Los Angeles. Lewis’s direction and the ensemble’s performances were crisp, breezy, bouncy and expert. While there were star turns for all the work’s 15 players, we’ll single out concertmaster Julia Noone, who brought off a wicked fierce cadenza with style and aplomb. Our only criticism would be that the first movement could have benefited from greater clarity of line, rendered difficult but not impossible by Adams’s bottom-heavy scoring (lots of low winds).

The second half of the concert opened with Stravinsky’s relatively seldom heard Danses concertantes, dating from 1942, and its genial lightheartedness belies the troubles Stravinsky had seen just before its composition: he had survived a bout of tuberculosis, and had suffered the deaths of his first wife, his mother, and one daughter, to say nothing of the traumas of World War II and his resettlement in the US. While still firmly within Stravinsky’s neo-classical period, this, like other works from the 1940s such as the Symphony in C and the Symphony in Three Movements, presents a mellower sound, perhaps owing to the greater reliance on string sonorities, than the hard-edged wind sounds of the 1920s and ‘30s. In the pre-concert talk, Lewis repeated the statement about these dances that they were not written with any balletic production in mind, an account that was contradicted by George Balanchine’s memoirs, in which he said that he had consulted closely with Stravinsky on what sorts of movements the (very real) dancers would make at various points. Balanchine did stage this work in 1944. Whichever story you prefer, the five pieces that make up this suite form a dramatic unity. An introductory march (taken rather swiftly for a march by Lewis) brings the “characters” onstage; in the second movement “Pas d’action” (which in ballet-speak is a rather showy dance that advances the story line, although one can appreciate the joke that in more colloquial usage it could be translated as “no action”) the winds come to the fore without dominating. The central movement is a tender theme with four variations, the idea being to showcase individual characters in the ballet—a musical form that Stravinsky did not ply very often, but did with great varied effect here. The Pas de deux comes next, the “big scene” between the male and female leads, and the introductory march is then reprised as an exit number, rather like the final chorus of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Lewis led the ensemble with great finesse, balance and attention to color. As wild a ride as the Adams was in spots, the Stravinsky was far and away the more complicated work to perform, with many meter changes and other rhythmic complexities; the ensemble brought all this off with calm assurance.

It is relatively unusual to close a mixed-era concert with a Haydn symphony, but as Lewis noted in his opening remarks, Haydn makes an excellent contrast to contemporary work, and in the case of a program featuring neo-classical Stravinsky, an almost inevitable complement. The work performed was the Symphony No. 92 in G, known as the “Oxford” because it was played on the occasion of Haydn’s receiving an honorary doctorate from Oxford in 1791, though the symphony had been composed two years earlier for performance in Paris. Cambridge graduate Lewis snarked that “of course” the symphony got a terrible performance at Oxford, which he attributed to the rhythmic complexities of the minuet: Haydn had sauced it up with off-beat accents that, had anyone attempted to dance it, would have left the dancer stumbling over his or her feet. In many other respects as well, this symphony winks at its audience, and does so amid a great deal of musical erudition and high Haydn drama—the intense middle section of the otherwise serene slow movement is a good illustration, along with the many characteristic pauses in the headlong finale. Lewis and the ensemble gave this a fine, loving performance, and earned a standing ovation for Papa and themselves, richly merited.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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