Sunday, December 1, 2013

Discovering Discovery Ensemble

Courtney Lewis in action with Discovery Ensemble.

I have been late catching up with Discovery Ensemble, which has steadily built a reputation for itself with concerts devoted to a startlingly wide repertoire. The group's stated goal is to "rival the great chamber orchestras of Europe," but this is blended with a commitment to musicians who are "still in their twenties" as well as a second mission, which is to reach out to Boston youth who have received "little or no education in music as part of their schooling."

Now these are all very worthwhile goals - particularly the outreach to musically disadvantaged youth (i.e., almost ALL youth) in our so-called musical Athens. Indeed, any unbiased observer of the artistic scene would immediately be struck by one over-riding question; how, precisely, can Boston be such an epicenter of both classical music and education, and yet so consistently ignore the musical education of its next generation? It is a puzzlement - indeed, one of the great contradictions of the culture, a self-destructive paradox at the divided heart of the Way We Live Now.

So charismatic Discovery conductor Courtney Lewis (above) has thrust himself into a highly charged political and artistic space, where he has many well-wishers. But whether all his goals are actually coherent - well, last weekend's concert left that an open question. As one might expect of a (late-) youth orchestra, the Discovery Ensemble is high in energy and commitment, and Lewis conducts with open-hearted, earnest enthusiasm. Still, there were subtle elements missing from the performances here - which spanned a wild range of styles and periods - that made me long for more sustained musical focus from both the group and its leader. The Discovery Ensemble has clearly made gains on its outreach goals; but judging from this concert, they still have a ways to go to catch up to the chamber orchestras of Europe.

I admit one reason I attended the concert was simply to hear a Thomas Adès rarity; this gay millennial composer is a favorite of mine, and his "Chamber Symphony" was penned when he was about the same age as many of the Discovery performers (i.e., 19; it was his Opus 2). As in other work that brought him attention early on (and much like dozens of other composers), Adès here seizes on a popular form as his musical foundation. But where his predecessors tended to expand or elevate their chosen themes (Dvořák's "From the New World" is a classic example, if you don't mind the pun), Adès instead operates like a musical Foucault or Derrida; he deconstructs his musical material, pulling it apart and teasing out its internal conflicts and contradictions.

The grandest of these early statements is his Asyla, whose most famous movement takes club music (and Seal's "Crazy" in particular) to chaotic new heights. But you can feel the same impulses in miniature in the Chamber Symphony - only this time jazz (not disco) is in the young composer's sights. So as his first gambit Adès conjures a moody kind of lounge music that's awash from the start in anxiety and alienation, and soon edges toward postmodern collapse. The piece opens with seedy melodic languors on the basset clarinet; but its theme is soon broken up into panicky fragments by insistent percussion (another favorite trope of this composer), then re-assembled, recapitulated, and deconstructed again by other instruments.

In the end, the Chamber Symphony amounts to a short tour de force, with a complex internal structure almost too condensed to follow on first hearing (Adès shoe-horns four continuous "movements" into less than fifteen minutes). And the Discovery players did well by its curiously original soundscape (which includes virtuoso parts for prepared piano and accordion in addition to bass and basset clarinets). But Lewis seemed unable to shepherd his ensemble into the sense of expansion and contraction (or control and crack-up) that Adès clearly intends, and so the performance began to meander well before its despairing conclusion. (You can listen to the whole thing here.)

Next came (rather inexplicably) the Suite from Rameau's abandoned opera Les Boréades, which was never performed in his lifetime, but whose exquisite score has become popular in the modern era. As you might guess from its title, the opera stars the descendants of the North Wind (whoever they are), and the dances drawn from it are among the composer's most delightful, even if their breezy charm is cut by a slight chill (a period wind machine actually whirrs to life in the suite's centerpiece). For some reason Lewis bulked up his musical forces to modern, rather than period, levels, which gave the dances a rather heavy tread; and alas, Rameau's rhythmic zephyrs sometimes blew sections of the orchestra ever-so-slightly out of alignment. But generally the flutes and strings were strong, and everyone was at their best when things moved at a clip (the entr'acte with the wind machine was particularly tight).

For the finale of his program, Lewis skipped centuries and styles yet again, to Beethoven's Fifth. Here Discovery's sense of ensemble was far more confident and coherent - indeed, almost too much so, given that Lewis was at a loss as to how to intellectually invigorate this symphonic warhorse. He did spur its flanks repeatedly - this was Beethoven at a gallop - but the subtler conducting decisions that could have refreshed its familiar gestures were once again missing. And this spells trouble for the Fifth, which is famously unadventurous harmonically; its final movement in particular requires a thought-through dynamic program to conjure a sense of expansion rather than merely repeated exhortation. But it was hard to find much meaning in Lewis's attack; he swung between pianissimo and fortissimo (but mostly fortissimo) almost at random, and with few stops in between. The results were grand, it's true - but tediously grand. Of course youthful players like to play loudly - they believe this counts as giving the work all they've got. But let's hope the Discovery players can somehow discover that sheer volume isn't always what classical music is all about.

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