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Lewis provides happy reminder of what he brings to Discovery

By DAVID WEININGER, The Boston Globe
March 4, 2014
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The Discovery Ensemble’s Sunday concert came on the heels of the announcement that Courtney Lewis, its cofounder and highly gifted music director, had been named assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic. (He succeeds Joshua Weilerstein, Discovery Ensemble’s former concertmaster, who will end his term as Lewis begins his.) The equally good news for Boston audiences is that Lewis will continue his work with Discovery Ensemble as his New York tenure begins.

Sunday’s concert began with Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, in a reading that honored yet refused to linger over the piece’s dark, unstable character. Lewis wisely divided the violins on the stage, making the string sound transparent and giving prominence to the winds. There were lovely solos from oboist Zachary Boeding and clarinetist John Diodati.

The real fireworks began with Haydn’s First Cello Concerto, with German cellist Nicolas Altstaedt as soloist. One of Discovery Ensemble’s strengths is its ability to play 18th-century music with true lightness and finesse, which they showed off throughout the concerto. Altstaedt was an inventive and creative partner; all the time he seemed to be listening keenly, whether he was playing or not. And he varied his tone and phrasing in fascinating ways, sometimes dropping down to a whisper in order to let the orchestra have its say. He also added a fascinating cadenza of his own to the first movement. His technical command was dazzling in the racing finale.

For an encore, Altstaedt and concertmaster Samantha Bennett played Sibelius’s first composition, a duo for violin and cello pizzicato called “Water Droplets.” He played standing up, leaning over to look at her music stand. It is difficult to imagine a more self-effacing encore.

Lewis gave a brief yet instructive spoken introduction to the three pieces from Berg’s Lyric Suite that the composer arranged for string orchestra. They radiate a sense of sensuous desolation that is uniquely Berg’s. Despite being written almost 60 years ago, the music is still difficult to play, and the string players seemed remarkably comfortable with it.

Brahms’s Third Symphony was lithe, ingeniously paced, and flat-out thrilling. Tempos were swift, and the relatively small size of the orchestra allowed much inner detail to shine through. Each accent registered its own quantum of force. It’s hard to make Brahms swing, but Lewis and his players came about as close as one can.

Lewis’s conducting was at its most vivid, and the orchestra responded to each capacious gesture (and podium stamp). They clearly enjoy playing for Lewis and are doubtless happy that his work in Boston will continue. Audiences should be as well.

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