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Chamber orchestra dedicated to making music, not money

Chamber orchestra dedicated to making music, not money

Eight years ago, a few string players, most of them recent conservatory graduates, met and discussed

The East Coast Chamber Orchestra, also called ECCO, has always been about the love of music.

“Our ideals were to be the kind of group that could get together three times a year and make beautiful music,” said cellist Danield McDonough, one of the group’s founding members. “Whether we’re in the red or black, we don’t really care. Music and money don’t mix. It was more a chance to get together with people we admire and can learn from and make great music and share that passion with an audience.”

On Sunday, ECCO will make its second appearance at Union College’s Memorial Chapel as part of the 37th International Festival of Chamber Music. The program, which will include works by Mozart, von Biber, Bartok, Piazzolla and Grieg, will not be repeated in 2009. Instead, next month ECCO begins a new program for its handful of concerts throughout the rest of the year and into early 2010, McDonough said.

East Coast Chamber Orchestra

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Union College Memorial Chapel

HOW MUCH: $20, $10

MORE INFO: 388-6080

The reason for that is because the up to 25 members on its roster — it will use 18 strings on Sunday — must take a week off from their regular jobs, which include orchestral and college posts, tours and freelance schedules, to rehearse and decide on the repertoire. And most take the week without pay, he said.

“Everyone has sacrificed a lot,” McDonough said.

This is nothing new for ECCO’s members.

Eight years ago, a few string players, most of them recent conservatory graduates, met and discussed the idea of founding a small conductor-less string orchestra, whose personnel would be all those people they wanted to play with and which would be run democratically.

“We knew there would be no money, but thought it would be really fun,” McDonough said.

Just a few calls

They made calls to friends and colleagues, many of whom had been competition winners, participants at the Marlboro Music Festival, members of such groups as Time for Three, the Silk Road Ensemble and the Metamorphosen Ensemble, and current or past members of the Boston, Philadelphia or Chicago symphonies. They eventually attracted 18 string players “from all over” who agreed to come to Philadelphia to rehearse in a church that donated its space. Those from out of town paid their own ways.

“It was very bohemian. We were crashing at each other’s apartments,” McDonough said. “But it was so great. There was no hierarchy, no rules, only free form. We were just playing and talking, getting into the music.”

One of the first hurdles was to find repertoire for that size ensemble. There were only a few works like Tchaikovsky’s Serenade. So the musicians got imaginative, he said, and started doing research in libraries and even on iTunes, and made arrangements of Bach’s Chorales.

“The Bach taught us how to move the orchestra forward. It was like a laboratory working with different leaders,” McDonough said. “It took us three hours to rehearse one movement. We’d start at 9 a.m. and leave at 9 p.m. with breaks for lunch and coffee. There was so much enthusiasm.”

ECCO played its first concert at the church and did one other concert in the first year. However, without someone with financial savvy and organization to help develop the group, this might have been it. But many of the players were already under management through their regular jobs. One of the musicians contacted Frank Salomon Associates in New York City.

“Frank saw the potential of the orchestra before we were together for long. He saw from the repertoire we did, that it would work,” McDonough said. “He took a chance and took us on as a special project.”

Over the next two years, Salomon booked concerts that got rave reviews. In 2004, Salomon spotlighted the group in its New York City debut at his annual Town Hall Presents concert. It has since played there two more times. In 2006, ECCO made a debut U.S. tour, which included the Kennedy Center, and in 2007 debuted at the Seoul Music Festival and Academy in Korea.

In 2003, ECCO’s rehearsal space issues were resolved. A patron donated his Virginia farm for a week where ECCO could rehearse, talk about music and life, and set the programs for the year without any distractions, McDonough said.

Open-ended system

ECCO continues to use the same rehearsal methods it did when it first began: There are no specific seatings as all chair positions rotate; rather than have only the principal players talk, anyone with something to say, can; repertoire suggestions come from everyone and are then weeded out by vote and given a program order. An e-mail tree is set in motion for any rehearsal alerts.

“Everyone pitches in,” McDonough said.

Today, ECCO still maintains a contagious kind of enthusiasm. McDonough said he believes this is partially because of the group’s freeflow organization. Unlike orchestras or string quartets where each player has a specific part to play, ECCO’s democratic arrangement allows everyone the choice to play a solo or in harmony.

“Who sits where just happens,” he said. “It’s like a giant amoeba that has no one steering it. There’s no bashing of egos. It never feels like there’s a leader even when there’s a solo in the music. The place where you’re sitting doesn’t matter. We all have this goal to make beautiful music.”

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