Discovery Ensemble invests the familiar and contemporary with fresh energy

December 3, 2012 at 11:49 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Courtney Lewis led the Discovery Ensemble Sunday afternoon at the Sanders Theatre.

In an innovative program that sparkled with energy and crispness down to the finest detail, Courtney Lewis directed the Discovery Ensemble in a program of Classical-era and modern masterworks at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre Sunday afternoon.

One is immediately struck by the quality playing of this chamber orchestra and the mature interpretive power and imagination of its youthful conductor, who has a soft spot for music that is off the beaten path.

Lewis led with Bartók’s Divertimento for String Orchestra, a three-movement work based on the concept of a Baroque concerto grosso. Not strictly neoclassical, the music is imbued with the sound of Hungarian folk music, especially in the outer movements, where driving, dance-like rhythms mesh with biting dissonances. The second movement’s Scotch-snap rhythms mix uneasily with static and haunting harmonies similar to what the composer mined in Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.

Through it all, the Discovery Ensemble performed with fine precision and intensity. On occasion, a concertino of two violins, viola, and cello broke out of the orchestral texture and played with a hushed but singing tone. Concertmaster Julia Noone offered a warmly phrased solo in the third movement.

Minnesota-based soprano Karin Wolverton joined Lewis and company in a sparkling performance of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Five Images after Sappho, a short song cycle based on the verse of a 6th-century B.C. poetess from the Greek isle of Lesbos.

Salonen’s colorful orchestration calls for an ensemble of fourteen players and an array of percussion—glockenspiel, bongos, and even “Thai nipple gongs,” which create a shimmering sound that is slow to decay when struck. The exotic colors are mixed in a score comprising the angular lines, dense harmonies, and extreme ranges, suggestive of Lutosławski and Stravinsky.

Some of Sappho’s poetry used in the work are little more than aphorisms, but Salonen penned moving music out such material. The line “As a whirlwind swoops on an oak, Love shakes my heart” features strings and winds in a swirl of cascading lines. Here, Wolverton was at her strongest, her voice soaring over the warm, supple flow of sound from the ensemble.

Sappho also penned verses for ceremonial use. The longest of the Images, the fifth, is an epithalamium told from the Bridesmaid’s point of view that not only celebrates a bride’s day but, as was usual in ancient Greek marriage ritual, encourages the groom to “go to the bed where sweetly and gently you’ll play with your bride.” Though her diction was cloudy in the beginning, Wolverton maintained a full sound through her entire register and handled the movement’s angular vocal lines with ease.

After intermission, Lewis conducted from memory Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D major. The Discovery Ensemble performed the outer movements with tremendous fire and energy, playing the myriad sforzandi with sparkling precision. Lewis has a mature interpretation of this powerful and underrated work and did much to bring out the fine details in the texture. The Larghetto’s string melodies, in particular, seemed to swirl and dance to his baton.

Overall the crisp playing and rich programming continue to make Lewis and the Discovery Ensemble a local ensemble to watch.

The next Discovery Ensemble program will include works by Rossini, Adams, Stravinsky, and Haydn 8 p.m. February 1 at Sanders Theatre.

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