East Coast Chamber Orchestra
Union College Memorial Chapel, Jan. 9
Once you begin doing something for a living, that occupation can achieve an other-ness that may make it seem a little less appealing. It’s nice to know that the musicians who comprise ECCO, the East Coast Chamber Orchestra, enjoy getting together to play for fun. That’s a great thing for an artist’s personal benefit, offering a low-pressure forum for enriching one’s playing and exploring new repertory.
And, like most professional performing artists, they’ve parlayed this into a money-making opportunity with public concerts—and that proved a great thing for our benefit when they gave a concert at Union College’s Memorial Chapel last weekend, their third appearance in the venue’s venerable concert series.
This was especially helpful during Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 110, an arrangement of his String Quartet No. 8. Written in 1960, the work is about as heart-on-the-sleeve as the Shostakovich ever got, which is saying something for a composer whose sleeves were continually heart-stained.
Its autobiographical nature is revealed in the use of a four-note motif based on the composer’s name: DSCH, which, if you run it through a German transliteration and correspond it with names for musical notes, produces the sequence D-E flat-C-B. It’s a fittingly haunting phrase, because Shostakovich’s music often plumbs great depths of melancholy, and he used it in several works—but here it not only conjures its way through all five movements, but also brings along elements from many of the composer’s previous works.
Rudolf Barshai’s string-orchestra arrangement of the piece puts the spotlight on several solo voices, and cellist Dan McDonough was one of those outstanding players.
The shrewd programming paired this with an early Janáček work for the first half, opening with that composer’s Suite for String Orchestra, first performed in 1877, when he was still immersed in folksong collection, and originally given dance names for its six movement titles.
It’s a very romantic piece, Wagner-aware, but the opening movement flirts with a three-note motto that recurs amid moments of lovely lyricism. An andante, originally titled Sarabande, is an evocative waltz given just enough exaggeration in its opening theme to jaunt us to Vienna, while the presto that followed was a Czech dumka, an A-B-A form with contrasting tempos and, in this case, a fun juxtaposition of note values as well, with frantic passages scratched out against drones.
The most challenging work opened the second half: another string quartet turned string symphony, but this time the composer himself made the arrangement. Alberto Ginastera wrote his String Quartet No. 2 in 1958 and the Concerto for Strings came seven years later, dropping one movement and reordering the other four.
And it’s a piece written very much under Bartók’s spell, courting atonality along the way. The solo violin’s opening theme gets a variation apiece from the other four first-desk players (bass was the fifth) before moving into a scherzo that pretty much empties the bag of available string-player tricks, including creative generation of screechy and percussive effects. The small, quick gestures that make up this movement must have been a nightmare to work out, but the playing was astonishingly effortless, and the effect was magical.
Though not as accessible as Ginastera’s ballet scores, it’s a rewarding work that merits repeated listening. Good thing it’s coming out on a CD later this year—I know I’ll be getting myself familiar with the piece to see what mysteries it has left to reveal.
Not many were left after the finish of the concluding work, one that you could term an arrangement of an arrangement of an arrangement. Corelli’s 12th and last violin sonata is a set of variations on “La Folia,” a 16-bar sequence borrowed by hundreds of composers, familiar today from movies scores as varied as Barry Lyndon and The Addams Family.
Francesco Geminiani arranged the Corelli sonatas for string orchestra, and ECCO violinist Michi Wiancko took further that version even further, with an obvious nod to Ginastera’s soundscape. It ranged from the amusing, as when the ensemble broke into a Gordon Jenkins-like harmony, to the tiresome (a foot-stomping, claves-smacking, tambourine-shaking finale), but all in all, it did what such an arrangement ought to do: move the music creatively further from its source and offer fresh commentary. And it couldn’t ask for better players. I look forward to their return.