East Coast Chamber Orchestra at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts

The East Coast Chamber Orchestra (ECCO), a conductorless string ensemble made up of young musicians who, in their day jobs, perform with several leading orchestras and chamber music groups, comes together several times a year to perform for their own pleasure, evidently, and has now made several appearances on the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts series in New York, the latest this past Saturday, March 16, 2013, at the High School of Fashion Industries on West 24th Street.

I have never been disappointed by this group, and I wasn’t disappointed on Saturday night.  Their concluding work, Bela Bartok’s Divertimento for String Orchestra, came across as a “major statement” in this performance, especially in the eerie second movement (molto adagio), which is in the best Bartok “night music” style.  The tight integration of the playing, rich with nuanced expression, and marked by great fervor in the dance-like finale, was a real joy to hear.

Earlier, they gave a smooth reading of four 4-part fantasias by Henry Purcell, an early Divertimento for strings by the teenage Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Benjamin Britten’s career-making early work, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10.  That they pulled off such a challenging program without a conductor and with such perfect coordination while preserving a feeling of spontaneity was quite marvelous.

I was only put off by one thing.  In the andante of the Mozart, I noticed that the strings had a peculiarly “metalic” sound, and observed that the players seemed to be consciously refraining from using vibrato, perhaps in an attempt to simulate “historically informed performance practice,” which suggests that the use of “continuous vibrato” to warm up string sound was a later invention.  Perhaps this would be more effective if they were using old-fashioned “gut” strings, but as far as I could see they were using standard steel-wound strings, and without vibrato the sound produced by such instruments can take on a harsh quality that plays against the gracious classical sound of Mozart.  The Purcell did not seem to suffer as much from this, and in the Britten, which immediately followed the Mozart, standard modern vibrato was much in evidence and the sound of the ensemble was warmer, fuller, and much more enjoyable.

The big hit of ECCO’s appearance last season was their rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings.  At around the same time they cut their first recording, which is now available on line, including the Tchaikovsky and the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony arranged by Rudolph Barshai from one of the string quartets.  It is a recording worth seeking out.

ECCO rewarded the tumultuous response of the PSC audience by performing as an encore a movement from Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for String Orchestra with lovely grace.  I would love to hear their performance of the entire piece.  I hope they are planning another recording.

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