This Valentine’s Day I heard the East Coast Chamber Orchestra [ECCO] perform at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. This close-knit ensemble of 18 string players is definitely skewed to the young side, but all are accomplished musicians with careers of their own who come together once a year to give a series of concerts purely for the fun of it. The ensemble includes members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Boston Symphony, and Chicago Symphony, as well as players with varied solo and chamber careers. But perhaps what is most impressive about ECCO has nothing to do with the musician’s many accomplishments, but stems rather from what is lacking: a conductor. Prior to the performance, cellist and ensemble spokesperson Daniel McDonough joked, “What better way to celebrate a romantic Valentine’s Day than by choosing to spend it with 18 solo strings—and no conductor?”
Although the program of works by Purcell, Turina, Tchaikovsky, and Britten had not piqued my initial interest in quite the same way as the ensemble itself had, ECCO performed with such energy and expressive nuance that a nearly impossible feat was achieved: I managed to sit through the entire Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings in rapt concentration. Considering how many times I hacked through this work in youth orchestra, it was a remarkable experience for the piece to once again conjure up feelings of delight and curiosity rather than boredom. Every time I think I have given up in my relationship with some piece of music great or small, an experience like this reminds me just how important it is to continue seeking contact with music that I’ve felt the need to decide is not to my taste. ECCO’s sincere, spirited, and powerful take on Tchaikovsky’s Serenade didn’t take the piece too seriously, but the sense of whimsy never descended into self-conscious schmaltziness.
ECCO seems to function just fine without a conductor, or even with a clear de facto leader—in true democratic fashion, they rotate seating after every piece. It was immensely enjoyable to witness the subtle tonal shifts brought about by a different roster of principal players leading their sections, a far cry from professional orchestras (most of which do rotate seating but only among the section players, leaving a tried and true set of titled players who for better or for worse have a disproportionate impact on the section’s sound). Clearly, ECCO is performing near the limits of what is possible without a conductor, and it would be difficult to imagine even such a proficient core of players pulling off the same feat with the added personnel and space associated with the full symphonic battery. Still, there’s something invigorating about what ECCO has been able to achieve, and I can only hope that their achievement becomes a model for a new kind of mobile ensemble of ambassador-performers, smaller and more portable than our symphony orchestras yet large enough to bring a lush, room-filling sound to communities that may not have the luxury of a permanent orchestra. Right now ECCO, somewhat understandably, is restricting its gigs to—you guessed it—the East Coast, but the mind reels at the possibility of even a few ensembles of this caliber touring throughout the U.S. as a full-time gig; how many communities could be reached, and how much could be done to loosen the strangle-hold that our major orchestral institutions continue to exert over programming, commissioning, and the possibility of real progressive change.