Sunday afternoon Discovery Ensemble filled Jordan Hall for a lengthy concert featuring violinist Xiang Yu and works that showcased both front and back halves of the chamber orchestra. The varied program was full of gems performed to the high standard we expect from Discovery and Courtney Lewis.
Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for String Orchestra in C (1880), a 30- minute work containing music familiar from ballet, film, and television, opened. It is both homage to Mozart and a compromise Tchaikovsky undertook between string quartet and full-scale symphony. The opening movement, Pezzo in forma di sonatina: Andante non troppo – Allegro moderato, was perhaps a bit quick. The second movement, Moderato tempo di Valse, is familiar and balletic, recalling the composer’s famous dance music, and received a nuanced and charming reading. The third movement, Elégie: Larghetto elegiaco, is very pretty and was played very well. The Finale (Tema russo): Andante – Allegro con spirito returned us to the dance spirit of the opening, with a capering, twinkly fugato and a madcap rush to the slow, sonorous ending. Lewis conducted with large and clear gestures and the strings were unified and responsive, with great tonal variation throughout. I enjoyed this music and found each movement captivating, though I do not grasp the connections among the movements and struggle with the work overall. The Valse so quite familiar on its own, it is perhaps impossible for me to approach this work as a whole and not find the Elégie a movement out of place. Regardless, it made for a great opening to the concert.
Once the larger chamber orchestra took the stage, Xiang Yu entered for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (1806). In three movements, this 45-minute piece marks a transition both in the history of the violin concerto and in the output of the composer. This performance began with a dramatic reading of the lengthy orchestral introduction to the Allegro ma non troppo, after which Xiang Yu entered in a reserved vein. The classicizing opening statement in the violin became more romantically impassioned during the development section, leading to the double-stop-laden cadenza and a full, sweet finale. The opening of the interior Larghetto called to mind a lark (the violin) responding to the call of hunting horns; this gorgeous movement managed to be simultaneously dense and spare (harmonically and in terms of overall affect). In the concluding Rondo, the violin led the orchestra into a merging of styles as the concerto danced to its conclusion. The performance brilliantly captured the referendum on style which this composition represents, as Classical music gives way to Romantic, as Beethoven embarked on a new musical style, and as the concerto develops from 18th– to 19th-century exemplars. The loud applause was deserved.
Following intermission, augmented winds and brass sections performed Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments in the 1920 version. This one-movement work, originally conducted by Serge Koussevitzky (in London), is an homage to Debussy written shortly after his death. Lewis made brief remarks and led the musicians to demonstrate a couple of key recurring themes. In this performance, lasting some nine minutes, the music became a meditation even when the brass blew out a fanfare. A memorable reading of infrequently heard music.
To conclude the program, a full yet reduced Discovery Ensemble entered the stage for Haydn’s Symphony no. 102. This late work shows the clear interactions between Haydn and his pupil Beethoven, more of a conversation between the two with the teacher learning from his student. Still, a sense of humor abides, something more familiar in Haydn’s compositions. For all the lightness and delicacy in the work, here performed sensitively and using tutti and ripieni sections, the Menuet plods heavily. Discovery Ensemble made it drolly bombastic and brought out the punchline, providing a fun ending to a delightful and full concert.