Boston’s Discovery Ensemble is young, both as an orchestra (it began in 2008) and individually (nearly all the players are in their 20s; the music director and conductor, Courtney Lewis, is 28).
Every concert, every movement of every piece, everything they do screams elegance — but their witty, frisky elegance playing Stravinsky is different from the airy elegance they bring to Haydn, which in turn is different from their approach to Bartok or Piazzolla or Esa-Pekka Salonen, or the dark caramel warmth of their Beethoven, or the antic high-wire precision of their John Adams.
I first went to a Discovery Ensemble concert about a year ago, at the urging (OK, nagging) of a friend who had been nagged by a friend who’d been nagged by a friend. Maybe nagging is how audiences are built, especially in a place like Boston where so many excellent musical groups compete for concertgoers. But nagging wasn’t what got me to every concert they’ve given since, or what made me ask to sit in on some rehearsals. The quality of their playing did that.
What’s most striking in the rehearsals is the rapport between Lewis and the players. His style of conducting is quick, alert, physically expressive. After each movement or passage he whips through the technical stuff — notes on tempo and dynamics — but he also communicates through metaphor, speaking evocatively about the music and giving the musicians room to respond, to draw it out of themselves. Of a passage in Stravinsky, he says, “It needs to have a little impropriety here. Not sleazy — just a little bit suggestive.” Rehearsing Rossini, he tells the violins at one point, “Just throw it away.” The next time through, when they come to that point in the music, he looks at them and shrugs, and they throw it away.
In the week before a concert, they perform and give demonstrations in local elementary schools. Chelsea, Dorchester. For many kids, Discovery Ensemble is their first exposure to orchestral music. This part of the group’s mission stems from a visit Lewis made to Venezuela, where he saw the impact of musical education on poor neighborhoods. “You go into a deprived area and there’s an orchestra of 12-year-olds playing Strauss,” he tells me. “You see 3-year-olds with cardboard violins. Practically every little town in Venezuela has a symphony, playing at a high level.”
When I ask Lewis why the group sounds so good, he says it’s the musicians, many of whom are recent New England Conservatory graduates. “A lot of our success comes from youth — energy and youth. They’re incredibly proficient, and they’re at that stage of their careers where they want everything to be perfect. No cynicism yet.” Of his role as conductor, he says, “You’re there to provide an interpretation. You’re imposing, but it needs to feel like a collaboration. You need to do it in a way that brings people with you.”
When I ask the group’s co-founder and artistic director, David St. George, the same question, he says, “It’s the alchemy between the players and Courtney. It’s like an electric shock, that moment in rehearsals when they begin to focus on very tiny nuances. He has the ability to get them to give themselves over and become an orchestra.”
Programming is another thing Discovery Ensemble excels at. The group’s last concert included four pieces — by Rossini, Adams, Stravinsky, and Haydn — that spoke to one another with a kind of scurrying, glittering wit. Their upcoming April concert will focus on the German repertoire, including Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, which, Lewis says, “is one of those pieces that tells a critic everything about an orchestra, because it’s all one shape, all one breath”; Beethoven’s piano concerto in G major; and Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2, because, says St. George, “We were curious about how a group of young, vital musicians would come to this tragic music.”
Energy, charisma, talent, nuanced musical understanding, an exceptional conductor, and a sense of social responsibility — this group shows us what the future of classical music, widely supposed to be precarious, will look like. And they’re here, now, in Boston.
So let me nag you: Go and listen.
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’