The Boston-based Discovery Ensemble, a youthful chamber orchestra that was one of the city’s most dynamic musical groups, abruptly announced Wednesday that it will be canceling its next season, which had already been announced, and closing down altogether. The choice to cease operations, according to a statement, was “due to the increasing difficulties faced in expanding the donor base and identifying additional board members in Boston’s saturated performing arts scene.” It added that refunds will be available to subscribers.
The ensemble, founded six years ago, had long been financially reliant on the generosity of a small circle of board members and donors, according to cofounder and artistic director David St. George. This summer the group found itself in a position of needing to raise its entire budget for next season — $319,000 — nearly from scratch. “We’ve been in a place similar to this before,” said St. George by phone on Wednesday, “but we just couldn’t do it yet again.”
The closure illustrates how an organization’s artistic success and its financial fortunes can sometimes bear little relationship. In the case of the Discovery Ensemble, the group’s performances under the baton of Belfast-born music director Courtney Lewis earned consistently enthusiastic reviews from critics and the vocal support of many of the city’s musical insiders. Its players were gifted early-career professionals or top students in local conservatory graduate programs. And the ensemble’s educational mission brought it into close and fruitful collaboration with many inner-city schools. None of that, however, proved enough to attract the city’s major musical philanthropists in sufficient numbers to secure the group’s future.
“I’m very grateful to our board members and donors who allowed us to achieve what we did, and I’m not blaming anybody for this situation,” said Lewis by phone. “But of course it’s all extremely disappointing. We wanted Discovery Ensemble to grow into an orchestra that would record and tour and rival European chamber orchestras, but it’s been very, very difficult since the beginning.”
The ensemble also faced a catch-22 encountered by many start-up arts organizations which lack the funding necessary to employ a marketing or development staff but then suffer from their absence. “I think it was in part donor saturation,” St. George explained, “but it was also in part that most of the potential donors in the city never found out about us.”
During the course of the ensemble’s six seasons, the group gave performances of works ranging from Bach and Beethoven to Britten, Ligeti, and Salonen. At its best the ensemble’s playing wedded a kinetic youthful intensity with a rare refinement and transparency of sound. “When I look back at it, and I know how much the odds were stacked against us,” said St. George, “I’m amazed at what we were able to do.”
Over the years, St. George and Lewis divided most of the administrative responsibilities. Lewis also retained his commitment to the organization even as his career blossomed nationally, with assistant conducting appointments at the Minnesota Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. In May, he was additionally named music director of the Jacksonville Symphony in Florida. He described his work with Discovery Ensemble, however, as remaining formative.
“When I guest-conduct any orchestra these days,” Lewis said, “all I’m trying to do is re-create the environment of a Discovery Ensemble rehearsal, where there is this incredible buy-in from everybody, and this way of playing chamber music as an orchestra. My role was really just facilitating this kind of listening in a performance — and that is every conductor’s dream.”Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.