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Steven Harrison and Ermonela Jaho in the Baltimore Opera's faithful production of
Steven Harrison and Ermonela Jaho in the Baltimore Opera's faithful production of "La Boheme." (By Michael Defilipp)


It's a string-orchestra sports car! It's a musical amoeba! It's . . . ECCO!

Like a perfectly tuned two-seater, ECCO, the East Coast Chamber Orchestra, handles high-speed twists and turns with ease. Also like the car, ECCO looks great standing still: nine black-clad men and eight women in bright-hued floor-length dresses.

Like an amoeba, ECCO constantly reshapes itself. The conductorless players switch positions for every piece, even swapping violin sections. Violinists, violists and bassists all play standing. It works because all these performers are good enough to be soloists -- which, in other contexts, many are.

At the Kennedy Center on Friday night, ECCO made Britten's "Simple Symphony" a showpiece, from an unusually playful "Playful Pizzicato" to a glowing, burnished "Sentimental Sarabande."

Jennifer Higdon's "String," the second movement of her Concerto for Orchestra, is a pleasant work of no great profundity, its pizzicati paralleling Britten's. ECCO made it sing and swing.

Shostakovich's Symphony for Strings -- Rudolf Barshai's transcription of Quartet No. 8 -- was the only work that fell a bit short. The searing emotional intensity of this tormented music was subsumed under smooth, gorgeous sound. Taking the edge off the anguish created a performance more musicianly than heartfelt.

But Tchaikovsky's sunny Serenade for Strings sounded marvelous. How did ECCO get such a huge sound from 17 instruments? The Terrace Theater's warm acoustics helped, but the ensemble provided the rich texture on its own -- including an almost impossibly sweet Waltz. These youthful players are helping form classical music's future. Long may they ECCO.

-- Mark J. Estren

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