The East Coast Chamber Orchestra took the Porter Center at Brevard College by storm, showcasing their considerable talents in a program guaranteed to please. They perform without conductors and section leaders, and change the stage arrangement of the players with every piece so that no one is relegated to the status of a back-stand musician. Each member has worked as both soloist and principal of a major orchestra — the caliber of their collective professional experience and apparent collegiality among the group members is both impressive and engaging.
The program began with the Capriol Suite (1926) by Peter Warlock, the pen name for the composer who was born as Philip Heseltine in London, 1894. Warlock was largely self-taught, though his work shows the influence of Delius. His interest in early music is evident in his editions of English works of the Elizabethan era and his six-movement Capriol Suite for strings based on sixteenth-century dances. The opening “Basse-danse” displayed the orchestra’s exquisite blending and careful array of articulations. The “Pavane,” also known by the title “Belle qui tiens ma vie,” was transcendently lyrical and serene, framed by a dactylic rhythmic figure in the violas. The “Tordion” in a fast triple meter with a range of dynamic levels on the repeats drew exhalations of delight from those around me. The “Bransles” featured interplays of staccato and legato phrases and playfully shifting metric accents in this arrangement. “Pied-en-l’air” was lyrical and slow, dense with chords. The final sword dance (“Mattachins”) was the most harmonically innovative movement of the suite, its slow-quick-quick rhythmic ostinato lending an insistent quality that built to a rousing climax.
Next was the Sinfonia No. 10 in B minor written for string orchestra by Mendelssohn in 1823 when he was just fourteen. Though this was composed as party music to be played by the musician friends of his parents (Mendelssohn himself conducted the premiere at his home), in hearing it one is amazed by the work’s deep seriousness. This sinfonia is unique among others by the composer for its formal design consisting of one long movement divided into two parts, an expressive, slow introduction followed by an allegro in sonata form. The ensemble played this ravishingly beautiful work with thoughtful attention to every musical detail. In the Mendelssohnian “scurryings” of the Allegro one could hear foreshadows of the “elfin scherzo” music to come in his later incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Just before intermission came an astonishing and virtuosic set of variations arranged for string orchestra by ensemble violinist Michi Wiancko on the famous “La Follia” melody and associated chord progression made famous in Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso in D minor. The opportunities for display were endless — harmonics, col legno and spiccato bowings, fast passagework, percussive effects, including Iberian-style foot stamps — while the material’s musical possibilities were expertly plumbed.
The after-intermission music was Tchaikovsky’s homage to Mozart, the Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48. This work is often programmed, but rarely played with the kind of sonorous richness and technical finesse of this ensemble. The opening movement “Pezzo in forma di Sonatina: Andante non troppo-Allegro moderato-Andante non troppo” bore a rich luminosity in the outer Andante sections which framed the enchanting dancelike Allegro, much like a fast and furious waltz with occasionally displaced accents. The real waltz took the form of the second movement, where the ensemble played with a Wiener lilt and elasticity rare in American performances. The soul of the serenade, the third movement “Elégie: Larghetto elegiaco,” resulted in some of the most beautiful playing of the evening in which every section was featured. The “Finale (Théma russe): Andante-Allegro con spirito –Molto meno mosso-Allegro con spirito” is richly varied with two actual Russian melodies, one slow and one fast, and a reprise of the opening theme. The enormous range of expressiveness with which the entire work was played made me keep checking the numbers of players on the stage (15). "I am violently in love with this work and cannot wait for it to be played," Tchaikovsky was purported to have said to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck. The same could be said for this ensemble.