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Practically perfect: The Discovery Ensemble's latest

By Lloyd Schwartz, The Boston Phoenix
February 12, 2013
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Sometimes a concert is so good it seems magical. Practically perfect. That's what I felt leaving Sanders Theatre on February 1 after the latest concert by Discovery Ensemble. What does it take to achieve such lofty status?

Obviously, technical polish. Not a problem for these youthful professionals, an ensemble with refined, beautifully balanced strings and scintillating winds. Then the program needs to be well thought-out, not just a random sampling. And someone with deep musical understanding — like director Courtney Lewis — needs to be in charge.

Lewis opened perfectly with — of all things — an overture: Rossini's familiar Overture to The Barber of Seville, not originally written for a comic opera. When Rossini quickly needed an overture for Barber, this one was ready-made. It has Rossini's usual busy fizz, but also urgency, tension, and suspense. Fellini used it hauntingly in 81/2. Discovery Ensemble's elegant strings played with both precision and wit. It bubbled, percolated — lighter than air, crackling, yet sinister. Rossini overtures, once a concert staple, are hard to do well. This one dazzled.

Then Lewis gave us John Adams's clangorously jazzy and moody 1992 Chamber Symphony. We hear the bustle of Stravinsky's Shrovetide Fair in Petrushka and snatches of West Side Story, with Ivesian multilayering. I like the bluesy "Aria with Walking Bass" slow movement best. The finale, "Roadrunner," is a Looney Tunes knockout.

After intermission, a rare delicacy: Stravinsky's 1942 Danses Concertantes, slippery, saucy, tender, with some of the composer's most piquant writing for winds. Three of its five movements have dance titles — "Marche," "Pas d'action," "Pas de deux" — and though it wasn't originally intended for ballet, Balanchine choreographed it, twice. It harks back to Stravinsky's 1918 theatrical masterpiece L'histoire du soldat, while seductively unfurling winds anticipate the Symphony in Three Movements (1945). There isn't a dull moment — and there wasn't in this performance.

We ended with one of Haydn's great late symphonies, No. 92 (Oxford). These days, Haydn is usually the dutiful curtain raiser: let's get it over with and get a gold star for virtue. But the great Haydn symphonies deserve to be climactic. Lewis led this with bravura style, and taste, giving the slow sections a deep, searching nobility (with wonderfully timed pauses), but not hiding its playfulness. The irresistibly zippy Presto finale actually looks forward to Rossini, so the whole evening came deliciously — perfectly — full circle.

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