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Graham Emberton

Ecce, ECCO!

February 10, 2013 at 4:50 AM

Behold! This past week I had the pleasure to experience the East Coast Chamber Orchestra (ECCO) for the first time. This group has to be one of the most dynamic ensembles I’ve ever seen. Their performance at the Center for Performing Arts in Carmel, Indiana was truly thrilling. The program began with Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, a beautiful piece featuring Susie Park on violin. Ms. Park handled the technical hurdles (arpeggiando galore!) with aplomb, and the ensemble accompanied sensitively. Next was Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, a quintessential Romantic work and something of a war horse for chamber orchestra programming (the repertoire for this medium isn’t bountiful). ECCO provided an intense, fresh interpretation, and I think even the most jaded listener would’ve been very much engaged by their rendition. In this piece I noticed the astonishing unity of the group. The performers communicated so well that even though their individual playing styles were unique, the collective sound synthesized effectively.

Following intermission came a piece unfamiliar to me, Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Composed in tribute to his teacher, this work brought international acclaim to Britten. I can see why the piece was (and is) popular, the multitude of variations provide an exciting array of musical forms from adagio to fugue and finale (and a lot in between). The “Aria Italiana” variation was particularly exuberant, such that principal violist Jonathan Vinocour broke a string while strumming. As he changed strings, each member of ECCO introduced themselves to the audience. This both passed the time and revealed the refreshingly down-to-earth nature of the group (which isn’t strictly east coast, incidentally. There were members based in California, and some originally from Poland and Australia). Another set of variations rounded out the evening, with ECCO’s own Michi Wiancko’s arrangement of La Folia, based on Geminiani’s rendition. While Baroque elements were of course at play here, Wiancko added flair to centuries of tradition. Latin spice was prevalent in places (claves, tambourine, and foot-stomping not optional) and the harmonies at times would have bamboozled Mr. Geminiani. It was a pretty phenomenal evening overall, which made the next day all the more exciting, because...

...ECCO came to my school! Over the course of the day some fellow students and I got to observe ECCO in an open rehearsal, play in a side-by-side workshop, and perform for masterclasses with members of the ensemble. The open rehearsal was intense. ECCO was practicing movements from Bartok’s Divertimento for String Orchestra for their next performance. The rehearsal process was extremely detailed and focused, although the members kept a steady flow of humor (Nick Kendall was especially easy-going). The decision-making process seemed to be fairly democratic, with players voicing their opinions about phrasing, dynamic, direction, and articulation quite freely. Occasionally I detected slight rumblings of an imminent argument, but a consensus was usually reached before it came to blows (I kid, I kid). The side-by-side was inspirational and just a tad mortifying rolled into one. Butler University students joined ECCO in a performance of Serenade for Strings. It was awesome to be right next to world-class performers. I shared a stand with Michi Wiancko and was agog at both her technical facility and superior musicianship. My own bumbling performance was not especially endearing to those around me, alas. As we shifted stands (and even sections) to emphasize the importance of communication and listening across the orchestra, I had a few exhilarating minutes sharing a stand with Susie Park as concertmaster- I can put that on my resume, right?

After this my quartet performed some of Borodin’s Quartet No. 2 in a master class where we received some pointers about phrasing, balance, and the importance of mapping out an interpretation. I observed a few other masterclasses, including one by Ayano Ninomiya, who shared valuable information about posture. This was a very special day for all of us students, I think. ECCO was generous with their time in working with us, and I found the combination of their performance and teaching to be very inspiring.

If you ever have the chance I would highly recommend attending a performance by this group!

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