CAMBRIDGE — Friday night’s concert by Discovery Ensemble was smartly programmed, well conducted, and played at a high level. But the secret ingredient to its success was something else: charm.
On the surface, that may sound like damning with faint praise, or, worse, condescension. But some of the most profound music in the Western tradition bristles with wit and invention, and eliciting those qualities is both necessary and difficult to achieve in performance. It requires, above all, a light and graceful touch, and that’s where this young, gifted chamber orchestra — with its very talented music director, Courtney Lewis — excels.
They began with the overture to Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” This supposedly overfamiliar piece is actually seldom encountered in the concert hall, and especially in the sort of performance heard here — bracing and insightful, with just the right doses of comedy and refinement.
On to John Adams’s 1992 Chamber Symphony, which takes two very different musical inspirations — Arnold Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony and the music from 1950s cartoons — and tosses them into a blender. It’s a loopy creation that feeds on its own energy, astringent melodies and video game sounds jostling for your attention. It’s also difficult to play, and the orchestra handled its off-kilter rhythms and mood swings with aplomb and, just as important, without losing sight of the music’s resolutely goofy character.
Stravinsky’s “Danses concertantes” was one of the first pieces the Russian composer began after moving to the United States in 1939. Though it shares the dry tone of many of his neoclassical works, it has a dandyish flair that hints at an appreciation by the émigré for his new homeland. Almost despite itself, the piece has subtle currents of humor in its rhythmic games and stop-start motion. All this came out during the ebullient performance, thanks in large part to Lewis’s dexterous leadership, always oriented to finding the music’s inner swing. The wind and brass playing was fantastic.
Haydn, of course, was the master of musical charm, a composer for whom sophistication and humor work hand in hand. The performance of his “Oxford” Symphony, No. 92, balanced both sides of this equation. Among other things, it was masterfully lucid — I’ve never heard the level of contrapuntal detail that Lewis elicited in this piece. (It helped that he put the first and second violins on opposite sides of the stage.)
But Haydn never hits you over the head with his inventions; they emerge instead as delightful surprises — erudition as entertainment. And this is what Lewis and the orchestra grasped so well. There were a few intonation problems and a bit of messy playing, but that didn’t stop this from being some of the most remarkable, and charming, Haydn in recent memory.