During its promising five-year existence, the Discovery Ensemble has forged a reputation for carefully conceived programs combining standard repertoire items with newer, more experimental music. For Sunday afternoon’s concert, conductor Courtney Lewis and his musicians “discovered” “Five Images After Sappho” by contemporary Finnish/American composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, a sparkly, impressionistic setting of songs by the enigmatic connoisseur of love, the Greek poet Sappho. The standard item was Beethoven’s sturdy, but always welcome, Symphony No. 2, heard considerably less often than the overplayed later ones.
The “Divertimento” by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok occupied a sort of middle ground. It’s not exactly a standard, but too old (composed in 1939) to be considered a discovery, despite its unmistakably “modern” musical language and emotional atmosphere. Under the buoyant and precise command of its young maestro, the no less youthful ensemble provided idiomatic and inspired accounts of all three pieces, transporting us to three very different musical destinations in space, time, and intent.
In a program note for “Five Images After Sappho,” Salonen wrote that it was “the tremendous energy of suffocated sexuality and the vibrant eroticism in Sappho that got my imagination going.” The piece is scored for solo soprano (Karin Wolverton) and 14 players, including winds, horns, keyboard, five strings, and a curious assortment of percussion. Wolverton sang with a warm, glowing tone and forceful delivery, but the orchestration at times overwhelmed her. The songs vary considerably in length. The first four are brief and somewhat fragmentary, while the last (“Wedding”) is an anthem to marriage combining several poems into a dialogue among a bride, a crowd, and an older woman dispensing advice.
Illustrating words interests Salonen less than creating an overall sonic and emotional atmosphere, with the voice as another instrument. A certain sameness characterizes the soprano part, a sort of vocalise rather than a careful setting of textual details. The orchestral effects are often brilliant, ranging from Debussy-like impressionism in “Without Warning” to a tribal processional accompanied by congas in “Wedding.” This is an attractive and theatrical work, and Lewis conducted a first-rate performance — but the music remains somehow generic. Sappho’s distinctiveness fails to fully emerge.
To the Bartok Divertimento that opened the program, Lewis and his string players brought an electric intensity and clarity, inhabiting the complex interplay between soloists and ensemble that drives this bleakly lyrical piece. In the concluding Beethoven Symphony No. 2, they showed a light, fluent touch, and emphasized the insistent suspense that the composer would develop further in his great symphonies to come.