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Discovery Ensemble closes season exploring ‘Crosscurrents’

By JEFFREY GANTZ , The Boston Globe
April 15, 2014
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Discovery Ensemble’s final concert of the season at Jordan Hall on Sunday was a sprawling affair, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven before intermission, Stravinsky and Haydn after. The afternoon, which ran two hours and 40 minutes, had been billed as “Crosscurrents: Four Intimately Linked Composers,” but the intimate links were hardly self-evident. What did pull the program together was Discovery music director Courtney Lewis’s cogent phrasing and the alert, pellucid sound of the ensemble.

Lewis favors fleet tempos, with long, sweeping lines and dramatic paragraphing. Balances throughout the program were exemplary, the different sections of the orchestra palpably delineated. On occasion there might have been more room for reflection. Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for String Orchestra was extroverted to a fault, boisterous, intense, and, in the third-movement Élégie, lacking in mystery. But the Waltz was not soupy and sentimental, as it so often is, and the dance rhythms of the Tema russo finale became contagious.

Discovery performed the Serenade with the violins grouped on the conductor’s left, an arrangement that did allow the cellos to sing out. For the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Lewis redeployed his strings, moving the second violins to his right and the basses to his left to reproduce the configuration Beethoven wrote for. His soloist, Inner Mongolian native and New England Conservatory Artist Diploma candidate Xiang Yu, played with a silvery, slightly puckering tone and considerable artistic maturity, though his artistic personality is still developing. He was particularly impressive in handling of the themes in Fritz Kreisler’s first-movement cadenza.

Dedicated to Debussy, who had died in 1918, Stravinsky’s 1920 “Symphonies of Wind Instruments” is not a symphony in the usual sense but a nine-minute “sounding together” of brass and woodwinds. Its blocks of sound conjure Russian Constructivism, but Stravinsky also had in mind the bells and litanies and choral refrains of the panikhida, or Russian Orthodox service for the dead, and in the burbling of alto flute and basset horn and the brass chorales you can hear a kind of elegy for the Chosen One of “Le sacre du printemps.” Performing the original version rather than Stravinsky’s 1947 revision, Lewis even found a folkish quality in the score, creating atmosphere without softening the composer’s edges.

Haydn is a favorite of this conductor; it’s unfortunate that the length of the program prompted some audience members to leave early. Symphony No. 102 began with a nicely calibrated swell, and then a delicate chorale, all part of a suspenseful introduction before the exuberant main theme of the Vivace breaks out. The Adagio brought forth ripe winds; the Menuet stomped and then, in the Trio, stretched and yawned. The Presto finale reveled in Haydn’s humorous misdirections.

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