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Discovery Ensemble journeys from Bach to Stravinsky

01.19.10
Courtney Lewis
Boston Globe

By Jeremy Eichler

In the last couple of years, the city’s classical music scene has been receiving shots of adrenaline from what might appear to be unlikely sources: two scrappy chamber orchestras newly founded and staffed by prodigiously talented conservatory students and recent graduates. The groups - A Far Cry and Discovery Ensemble - are structured differently (the former plays without a conductor, the latter is led by the young and charismatic Courtney Lewis), but both convey a passionate musical commitment, a high level of technical execution, and, perhaps most strikingly for audience members accustomed to the sober professionalism of more established groups, an intense joie de vivre derived from the thrill of making music together.

The Discovery Ensemble put all of those qualities on display Sunday afternoon in an excellent concert at Sanders Theatre. Titled “Bach Meets the Neoclassicists,’’ it was given over to music by Bach, Bartok, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev. The program cohered surprisingly well as it darted through the centuries, and the performances overall had the kind of fluidity and crackling energy that has earned this group a loyal following.

The opening selection, Bach’s Orchestra Suite No. 3, conveyed a delightful connection to Baroque dance forms, even if some balance issues occasionally crept in. Bartok’s Six Songs for Children’s Chorus followed, boasting some clear and impressively polished singing from the Boston City Singers, a children’s chorus based in Dorchester, where the orchestra has also been conducting workshops in schools.

After intermission, picking up the dance theme, came Stravinsky’s remarkable ballet score “Apollo,’’ here given a lithe and well-characterized account, with Lewis drawing from the orchestra at times a taut rhythmic incisiveness or a lovely diaphanous sheen. The fine solos by concertmaster Joshua Weilerstein projected a sense of both poise and fantasy.

Yet it was the final work, Prokofiev’s “Classical’’ Symphony, that produced the most heated, lapel-grabbing playing of the night, with the ensemble conveying both the music’s fond backward gaze and its modern bite. Lewis’s conducting seemed to derive its potency from a merging of a tightly controlled physicality with a deeper sense of the volatile forces and expressive urgency that underlie this music. Since founding the Discovery Ensemble, he has been appointed assistant conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra. Let’s hope he maintains his local ties even as his national career rises. Word is still getting out on this group, but the Discovery Ensemble’s reputation will surely continue to grow.