Discovery Ensemble winningly serves a fresh program of Adams and Stravinsky

February 2, 2013 at 2:18 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Courtney Lewis led the Discovery Ensemble in a concert Friday night at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre.

Courtney Lewis and the Discovery Ensemble returned to Harvard’s Sanders Theatre Friday to perform a spirited, even high-octane program of classical and contemporary music. But the musicians offered more than a fury of notes and technical flair. Under Lewis’s guiding hand, the orchestra plumbed the musical depths of the repertoire with stylish and sensitive phrasing.

Despite a shaky opening in the solo horn, Lewis and company brought a light and even prankish energy to Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture. The horns and woodwinds played with delicate phrasing in the cantabile melody of the overture’s third section.

Audience members of the early TV generation will recall that Rossini’s 1816 overture filled living rooms in the 1950s as the soundtrack to Bugs Bunny’s pranks against the slow-witted Elmer Fudd. Cartoons served as a literal source of inspiration for the piece that followed, John Adams’ Chamber Symphony.

While studying the score to Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony in his home studio in the early 90s, Adams heard music from a television in the next room, where his then-seven-year-old son was watching cartoons. The composer said he realized that the sound worlds of Schoenberg and the Roadrunner (the title of the Chamber Symphony’s third movement) have more in common than meets the ear.

The Chamber Symphony is a slick three-movement work for fifteen instrumentalists, a sort-of Schoenberg meets Saturday morning. Written in 1992, Adams’ work is a persistent whirlwind of orchestral color and polyrhythms. The composer’s hard-driving rhythmic style at times is reminiscent of his Short Ride in a Fast Machine, but here Adams adopts a denser, more chromatic musical language.

In a brief demonstration of Chamber Symphony passages before the performance, Lewis highlighted the driving rhythms and unusual orchestration–the score calls for trap set and a synthesizer that produces a range of video-game and jazz-organ timbres.

Jazz sonorities pepper the piece as well. Wild riffs for woodwinds and sharp bursts from the brass section in the opening “Mongrel Airs,” which would be equally at home in hard-bop jam sessions. The motor rhythms of “Roadrunner” recall Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat and Copland’s Hear Ye! Hear Ye! And throughout the performance of this challenging music, the Discovery Ensemble played with crystalline precision.

The musicians maintained that energy in Stravinsky’s Danses concertantes. Conceived as a concert work that was later adapted for the ballet stage–a reversal of Stravinsky’s other ballet scores–Danses concertantes makes balanced use of the wind and string sections in a miniature concerto for orchestra. Cast in five movements that are played without pause, the score exemplifies Stravinsky’s asymmetrical phrasing and threadbare neoclassical style.

There are spare moments of repose. The third movement’s variations showcased concertmaster Julia Noone in expressive playing, rendering the short lyrical bursts in Stravinsky’s score with finesse. The fourth movement “Pas de Deux” featured finely played moments of quirky romanticism for Denexxel Domingo (clarinet), Bianca Garcia (flute), Zachary Boeding (oboe), and Luke Varland (bassoon). In the quicker movements the music danced, even galumphed appropriately under Lewis’s baton.

To conclude the concert, Lewis and company offered a tight reading of Haydn’s Symphony No. 92 in G, the “Oxford,” a work that, like the Stravinsky, makes handy use of wind and string sections.

The Discovery musicians performed the tender second movement, one of Haydn’s most expressive, with sensitivity. Lewis conducted a brisk, scherzo-like minuet, and the trio featured the horns in crisp, bold attacks that seem to anticipate Beethoven’s Eroica. The rest of the ensemble followed with a pointed rendering of the irregular accents and syncopation that Haydn etched into the dance. The fiery Presto put an exclamation point on the end of this commanding performance.

Through it all, Lewis conducted with energetic, sweeping motions with both arms to bring visual attention the music’s inner parts, which made for fresh performances of this engaging program.

The next Discovery Ensemble program will offer Schoenberg’s Second Chamber Symphony, Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with soloist Michael McHale. Concert time is 3 p.m. April 14 at Sanders Theatre.; 617-800-7588.

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