If you are looking for a topflight orchestra in town to hear other than our Boston Symphony Orchestra, why not try Boston’s own Discovery Ensemble? Sunday’s Jordan Hall concert of Mozart, Ligeti, and Sibelius with Shai Wosner at the piano and Courtney Lewis on the podium received richly deserved rounds of bravos and ovations. It was an afternoon as much of instrumental precision as musical communication. While there could have been a few more doses of yearning to go along with the burning, Discovery’s single-mindedness set high standards of orchestral conduct.
Lewis meticulously fashioned phrases and the orchestra in turn meticulously enunciated them. Even the look of the Discovery Ensemble bared complete engagement while pianist Wosner brought to the concert a special presence. His playing of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K 466 shed light on the standout concerto through multiple touches on the keyboard. He found in this Mozart performance the vastness of today’s piano, perhaps taking a lead from Beethoven whose cadenza Wosner chose for the first movement. For the third movement, Wosner composed his own cadenza, one closer to the vivacities of Mozart, which complemented Beethoven’s alarming modulations and inimitable dramatic motivic play.
In the Allegro movement, also striking were Wosner’s idea of piano and orchestra balance. When the piano at first took to undertones barely audible with the accompanying orchestra, it caused one to wonder. Then, gradually, more and more sound from the piano would emerge seemingly from out of the orchestra itself finally becoming recognizable as the concerto’s central instrument. The quieter final return of the piano theme of the Romance headed toward the heart under Wosner’s expressive touch. A very fast paced Allegro assai had the feel of something red-hot rather than determined or resolute. To describe this performance of the rondo as urgent would be an understatement. Throughout the big concerto, the smaller Mozart sized orchestra itself sounded big in the very best sense of the word, never, though, overriding lucidity.
Ligeti’s sonic teaser from the 1970s turned our role as listener into something of a detective. Part of the reason is its title, Melodien. As Lewis would explain, finding Ligeti’s tiny, fleeting melodies amid “a huge spider web,” the conductor’s description of one of the composition’s textures, could be tricky for newcomers to the piece. As it turned out, detecting melody in Melodien became quite another matter altogether from what is was in Mozart and Sibelius. The 23 strings, 9 winds, one keyboardist and one mallet player individually and collectively summoned streams of colors from the brilliantly bright to the dusky and dark. Rounding off downbeats, Lewis’ conducting lifted Ligeti’s composition into near gravity-free space to marvelous effect. What pleasure this was posed between two large-scale anchors of tonality.
With Sibelius and his Symphony No. 6, Op. 104 we were back to being anchored in D. Fertile textures reigned here as in Ligeti—and in Mozart. Fields of sound might be more apt in describing abundant passages in this work where small structures fractalated as they do in nature. We also imagined earthbound fields of bucolic plenteousness as opposed to outer space Ligeti. Lewis and a full symphony-sized Discovery Ensemble captured this imagery, showering the symphony with intense richness and remarkable genuineness.
There are three upcoming concerts scheduled for November, March, and April. More good news is that Discovery Ensemble will be back again at Jordan Hall, where acoustics are a perfect match for such high-level orchestral output. More of Boston’s listener’s should be on hand than at this, their opening concert of this still young season, they will not be disappointed.