It turns out that the Discovery Ensemble and conductor Courtney Lewis can go too far after all. The group has made a dynamic approach one of its calling cards, players and conductor immersing themselves into everything they play — usually without crossing the line between intense and overbearing. But their Friday concert, to borrow an analogy from another arena, started off with more wild throwing than controlled pitching.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 2 — the first, and most temerarious, of the three tries at a “Fidelio” curtain-raiser — found Lewis almost frantic in his physical exhortation, with diminishing returns: The sound often came out as a kind of diffuse bang, strenuous but scattered in its energy; exaggerating the soft edges in lyrical sections — the better to contrast with the more explosive, Beethoven-being-Beethoven outbursts — made for a stop-and-go feel.
But the ensemble settled into their more customary groove with “Mania,” a 2000 concerto for cello and chamber orchestra by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Like many a conductor-composer, Salonen (who was on the other side of Huntington Avenue, conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra) combines a sure orchestral touch with lushly eclectic tendencies. The echoes in “Mania” are varied, long-assembling melodies reminiscent of Mahler or Sibelius unfurl over impressionist waves of up-to-date harmonies. The music was like the remodeled Gardner Museum: a heady mix of artifacts, jumbled by style and era, stuffed into an elegant house, given a modern steel-and-glass veneer.
Cellist Kacy Clopton was an excellent soloist, playing with command and a confident rhythmic point that complemented the orchestra’s dense mists. Lewis, too, was superb, more efficient and graceful in his control, more focused in his exhilaration; the players realized the score’s dark gleam with lively poise.
The grace carried over into Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” — one of Salonen’s influences made manifest — though some spark seemed to have been polished away, the performance very, very pretty but more demure than ravishing. Some of the Beethoven’s vehemence, in turn, resurfaced in Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 (K. 543), but in far better balance, the energy drawn in an energetic line through the music instead of being hammered into it. The inner Andante and Menuetto movements created their charm by understating it; the outer movements built to their climaxes rather than simply cutting to them. When the curve and the fastball set each other up, both are more effective.