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Discovery Ensemble explores gods and masters

By MATTHEW GUERRIERI, The Boston Globe
November 26, 2013
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In Jean-Philippe Rameau’s final opera, “Les Boréades,” Alphise, the queen of Bactria, refuses to marry a descendant of Boreas, the god of the north wind; complications ensue, but eventually Apollo appears to let Alphise off the hook. It is, in other words, a wish-fulfillment fantasy for composers: divine license for going against the prevailing winds. On Sunday, Discovery Ensemble and conductor Courtney Lewis surrounded the suite from Rameau’s opera with similarly windward music.

Thomas Adès wrote his Chamber Symphony in 1990, when he was 19; the piece’s youthful qualities are less those of exuberance or insouciance than a kind of defiant moodiness. A fog of basset and bass clarinet (Alexis Lanz and Denexxel Domingo) wafts into a brew of clichés — a skittish, stop-and-go jazz hi-hat, desolate horn fifths — while the counterpoint tangles like overgrown vines. Dense and labile, Adès’s constant instrumental invention mesmerizes. Lewis and the ensemble painted the sound in a rich variety of grays: silver, gunmetal, overcast.

The Rameau suite, gathering the opera’s surfeit of dance music, was altogether more temperate. Rameau made pioneering use of clarinets and horns (a combination Adès also leverages), and it lends the suite’s more elegant dances a burnished, autumnal quality. Elsewhere, Rameau has fun with his plot’s meteorological overtones: flurries of tremolo strings, gales of scales, the whoosh of a wind machine. The performance was breezy and loose, sometimes to the point of fuzziness, tacking back and forth into the beat, the tempo swaying with each gust of ornamentation.

After intermission came Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. Originally radical in both conception and inspiration — more than a little French Revolutionary air blows through the score — two centuries of canonic status has become a windbreak to the symphony’s innovations. The performance featured what has become a traditional toolbox for foiling the work’s tradition. Tempi were cruise-control breathless, transitions abrupt, and fermatas short, as if trying to reach the next bit of music just before the listener would remember what the next bit was.

Loud music was very loud, soft music very soft, shifts between them swift and explosive. Lewis lashed at accents with aggressive jabs; musical layers were compressed into a single, vehement front. It was a bit one-dimensional, but that, perhaps, is the antidote for the symphony’s fame, for reclaiming music that, at one time, came in like a lion, but whose familiarity has too often made it go out like a lamb.

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