Every performance of the East Coast Chamber Orchestra, which made its second appearance Sunday afternoon at Union College’s Memorial Chapel as part of the 37th International Festival of Chamber Music, is a labor of love.
The musicians, who take time off from their regular jobs in orchestras, string quartets and other venues to perform with ECCO, are on record for saying that making beautiful music is their focus, not making money. The near-capacity crowd on Sunday reaped this bounty with some exquisitely prepared and played pieces.
The nine men, dressed in black, and the nine women, dressed in elegant long colorful gowns, impressed immediately with their exuberance and precision.
More like a quartet
Their ears were so attuned to every nuance that the ensemble was more like what one would expect from a string quartet than 18 musicians. That the group works without a conductor and changes seating arrangements on every work and still can achieve its high standards and unified interpretations only add to the accolades.
They began with Mozart’s Divertimento in F Major (1772), which showed off ECCO’s balanced voices and refined phrasing. Tempos were cheerfully buoyant with delicate dynamic levels and exact pitch. The three movements had lovely melodies, which the players gave much lift to.
In Bartok’s Divertimento (1939), which was more challenging on every level, ECCO set a driving, pulsing tempo that shifted in mood and speed throughout the first movement. Bartok infused much mystery, humor and lyrical beauty here and the players seemed inspired to tweak every curlicue. Despite Bartok’s famously percussive rhythms, ECCO chose to emphasize the lyrical and not the heavily accented aspects.
The second movement’s slow, dark, and dramatic buildup was expertly paced with a sustained emotional commitment from the players that was thrilling. The final movement of wild dances, which included a puckish plucked waltz, was a marvelous creation.
Heinrich von Biber’s delightfully pictorial “Battalia”(1673) had the players stomping their feet, tapping their instruments and snapping their strings in a joyful simulation of a battle complete with a lament for the wounded musketeers. ECCO frolicked with flair and robust tones.
Grieg’s “Holberg Suite” (1884) was wonderfully flowing, lyrical and charming. ECCO’s musicality never ceased to amaze. The Air was exquisite. It was a glide over a glacial Nordic lake through sunlight and shadows.
An arrangement of Piazzolla’s “Four, for Tango” (1989) was a bit heavy with all those strings. But their gritty dark sound caught the work’s insinuating moves.
Cheers, stomping feet and a standing ovation brought an encore: a Bach Chorale that was a slow meditative homage to all the group stands for: the beauty of sound and music.