The roar of the crowd

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  October 13, 2009

A shamefully sparse crowd roared for another magnificent concert: the Discovery Ensemble’s superb program September 20 at Sanders Theatre. (Would more people come if this marvelous outfit had a more memorable or seductive name?) Belfast-born Courtney Lewis, DE’s 25-year-old music director, is both an inspired conductor — every moment seems to be on its way to or from someplace — and an inspired programmer. This one began with the spiky suite from Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat, with outstanding contributions by violinist Julia Hunter (as the fiddling Devil) and the rhythmically scintillating clarinettist Denexxel Domingo. Then another supreme but infrequent 20th-century masterpiece, Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, with Kevin Owen going beyond Britten’s technical challenges to create new worlds of atmosphere and color, and young tenor Matthew Anderson (so good in DE’s complete Stravinsky Pulcinella last spring) more than competent in his vocal technique (an achievement in itself) but perhaps too interpretively reticent for this diverse anthology of poems. The concert ended with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony in a sensitive, witty, utterly engaging reading that Julian Kuerti will have a hard time matching with the BSO this Saturday.) Lewis has an orchestra of young masters whose hearts are in the right place in their practice of giving free outreach concerts in the inner city, where school music programs have virtually disappeared. One thousand Dorchester kids heard selections from this program at Dorchester’s Strand Theatre. Lucky kids. Lewis is now the Minnesota Orchestra’s new assistant conductor. I hope he doesn’t abandon his mission — or us. He’s our future.

Now in its 41st year, Richard Pittman’s Boston Music Viva presented an ambitious and satisfying concert of contemporary pieces using the “Pierrot ensemble,” the five instruments (piano, violin, cello, flute, and clarinet, sometimes also a vocalist and percussion) for which Schoenberg scored his great song cycle Pierrot lunaire. The complex rhythms of Michael Gandolfi’s 1996 Grooved Surfaces, which are based on Adowa drumming (from Ghana), had my right fingers and toes tapping to a different beat from my left. John Harbison’s The Seven Ages, in its local premiere, sets six bleak yet oddly hopeful poems by Louise Glück (“I even loved a few times in my disgusting human way”), and it’s one of his most ambitious — and gorgeous — vocal works, with some of his most imaginative instrumental writing (especially for cello, as feelingly played by Jan Müller-Szeraws). The vocal line (sung with fervor by mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal) goes against the grain of Glück’s cool image but also reveals what’s within that grain. The quicker, more jagged passages seem closer to capturing Glück’s understated colloquialism, but Harbison also confronts, reveals, and revels in Glück’s primal ritualistic element.

The program concluded with a newly commissioned Richard Cornell piece: two short Images, one of a flock of unruly sparrows, the other a nocturne in which mysterious chords change character as their instrumental colors keep changing. Pittman also conducted a strong performance of a major piece from Elliott Carter’s middle period (he was 74), the intricate Triple Duo, though in previous readings I remember him projecting more of Carter’s radical changes of mood and character. One scheduled encore was a delightful “Country Dance” from Bernard Hoffer’s children’s ballet A Boston Cinderella, seated violinist Bayla Keyes almost stealing the spotlight with her exuberant foot stomping. Kudos too to pianist Geoffrey Burleson, Ann Bobo (flute), William Kirkley (clarinet), and Robert Schulz (percussion, which in the Hoffer included a washboard).

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