Probing discoveries from adept ensemble
CAMBRIDGE - The fringe players, the music schools, and the start-up ventures have taken on a new centrality this fall season. With the Boston Symphony Orchestra in transition and mainstream presenters like the Celebrity Series facing tough economic times by tilting conservative in their programming, it’s abundantly clear just how much Boston’s “other’’ classical music scene matters. For instance, the most adventurous and distinctive recitals this month are almost without exception taking place at local music schools. Meanwhile, groups like the Discovery Ensemble - a chamber orchestra in its fourth season, made up of talented early-career players - continue to offer concerts of dependably fresh and visceral music-making.
That was certainly the case for Sunday’s Discovery Ensemble performance at Sanders Theatre, led by the fast-rising Irish conductor Courtney Lewis, the group’s music director. The program opened with Britten’s “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge,’’ a piece whose urbane musical wanderings demonstrate the young Britten’s wide command, and on this occasion, showcased the ensemble’s own range and virtuosity. Particularly appealing here was the Romance, delivered with a seductive rhythmic lilt, and the Aria Italiana, tossed off with bright frolicsome energy.
After the Britten’s diverse stylistic excursions, Lewis and company set off toward a weightier and more introverted quest, with Frank Martin’s powerful yet rarely performed settings of monologues from Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s “Jedermann,’’ itself an adaptation of the English morality play “Everyman.’’ The texts trace the path of a worldly self-assured man shocked by a visit from death, wrestling with his fate, and ultimately turning toward spiritual faith. Martin’s settings, from the 1940s, seem at once both carefully disciplined and wild, with a sturdy and mostly tonal musical language encountering a kind of surging, lawless expressionism.
On Sunday baritone soloist Christòpheren Nomura delivered a sensitively shaded, well-shaped and probing account of this challenging score. Lewis and the orchestra were with him every step of the way, but in fact needed to do still more. The orchestral playing too often edged toward the passively accompanimental when more intensity, presence, and bite were required. The piece’s strengths still translated but their impact could have been more forceful.
After intermission came Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Here Lewis was at his best and most assured, drawing a performance with verve, polish, and style. Phrasing felt thoughtful, the playing relaxed yet focused, the textures transparent, and the music allowed to breathe without ever growing slack. Lewis turned up the heat in the finale. It was an altogether superb account.
Those with memories reaching only as far back as the once-praised, now-vanished Metamorphosen chamber orchestra often wonder how long groups like this can last, since they are sustained by young musicians at the beginning of their own professional journeys. The description applies to Lewis too, whose growing list of responsibilities would seem to be pulling him away from Boston. (He is associate conductor at the Minnesota Orchestra and, this year, also a Dudamel Fellow at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.) While it’s impossible to know the future of these groups, one can at least appreciate them while they’re in our midst. Sunday’s modest crowd suggested the Discovery Ensemble is still far less discovered than it should be.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.