This season the Discovery Ensemble, led by the dynamic young conductor Courtney Lewis, seems determined to build on the momentum generated by the artistry it has placed on view since its founding in 2008. To that end, it has moved all its concerts from Sanders Theatre to the more symbolically central Jordan Hall, it has announced plans for a new Chamber Players series, and it has taken aim at both larger-scale repertory and a handful of seldom heard works.
Discovery’s season-opener on Sunday afternoon charted a refreshingly uncommon flight path. Instead of the typical overture-concerto-symphony format, this performance began with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 and from that miracle of early classical invention and ratiocination, plunged the listener into the ghostly, disorienting landscapes of Ligeti’s “Melodien.” After intermission, where a hefty Romantic symphony might have offered the ears more conventional reassurance, Lewis and company instead concluded with the majestic strangeness of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 6, a work whose grasp of melody seems at times no less elusive than the avant-garde tone poem that here preceded it.
The performances themselves got off to a strong start, with the best of the afternoon coming first. From the first moments of the Mozart concert, Lewis deftly framed this work’s particular theatricality, drawing out darkly colored yet rhythmically incisive string playing and telegraphing a duly operatic atmosphere of hushed foreboding. The thoughtful Israeli pianist Shai Wosner was the afternoon’s soloist, and his account of the solo line conveyed both the sensual and cerebral charms that Mozart himself was proud to have interlaced into this extraordinary work. The former came out most rewardingly in Wosner’s lovely account of the central Romance, delivered with unmannered clarity and a natural singing tone.
To borrow Mahler’s famous statement about his much-larger symphonies, Ligeti’s “Melodien” of 1971 creates a fascinating acoustic world unto itself. At the opening, ascending chromatic scales pull the ears skyward, where shards of melody drift and dart through a thick vapor of sound. Slivers of orchestral solos break free into the ether. On Sunday afternoon, the Discovery players gave this daunting score a committed and accurate reading even if the piece remained a few shades under-realized. From the podium Lewis seemed to have his hands full collating the work’s incredible density of elements but the music would have benefited from a more delicate shaping hand, a more tactile awareness of its play of shifting layers. Even so, the Ligeti made for an arresting bridge between this concert’s two better-known bookends.
The Sibelius Sixth may get more performances than “Melodien,” but it is hardly a standard crowd-pleaser; at various points in this work symphonic thought itself seems to be unraveling before our ears. On Sunday the piece gave Lewis a chance to showcase the tonally rich and distinguished playing of which this fine orchestra is capable, with the woodwinds in particular shining brightly, even if one wished at times for a more boldly drawn, vividly crystallized vision of this music’s sublime strangeness, its wonderfully elemental wedding of fire and ice.
The orchestra’s ambitious season continues on Nov. 24.