music review

The East Coast Chamber Orchestra at the Kennedy Center

STRING SERENADES: The East Coast Chamber Orchestra created sparks with Britten's Prelude and Fugue and in Tchaikovsky's Serenade at the Kennedy Center.
STRING SERENADES: The East Coast Chamber Orchestra created sparks with Britten's Prelude and Fugue and in Tchaikovsky's Serenade at the Kennedy Center. (Vanessa Briceño-scherzer)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

It's hard to argue with the idea of a bunch of professional musicians getting together to play for the love of it. The East Coast Chamber Orchestra is a group of 18 string players who were friends as students, have now landed high-profile jobs in orchestras and chamber ensembles across the country, and who a couple of times a year take time to reconvene and make music together, hang out, rehearse and finally play a concert. The most recent of their sparse appearances took place at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, courtesy of the Fortas Chamber Music series, on Sunday night.

Playing for love, not money -- the concert fees just about cover expenses -- the musicians are essentially meeting to explore what making music means to them: to look beyond routine and find the point of the exercise. Sunday's concert, though exquisitely played, showed that they're still looking for the answer.

The concert was in many ways a lovely thing to behold. There was a lot of good music: Turina's "La Oración del Torero," a delightful piece crammed with color and life, like an impressionist streetscape; Britten's Prelude and Fugue for 18-part String Orchestra, probing every corner of the instrumental resources available and finding new things in each; and Tchaikovsky's Serenade. The playing was at a consistently high level, and the musicians sounded pleased with all the beautiful sounds they were able to make.

But it was all a little too consistent, and a little too beautiful. In fact, everything sounded the same -- and this on a first half that moved from Purcell (Chacony for Strings) to Turina to Elgar (Serenade for Strings) to Britten. The players, attuned to one another's every nuance, were able to execute perfect crescendos and then die away immediately into softness, and they did this so often that the constant loud-soft-loud-soft began to resemble a heaving breast. The principal communication that emerged was "Look what we're able to do," which is all very well: Technical excellence is a fine thing. But surely the music is about more than that, and there's more to be elicited from the audience than polite but distant admiration.

The highlights came in the Britten, which sometimes managed to pull the players out of themselves and create real sparks, and the Tchaikovsky. In between lapses in the slow passages into what one might term the exquisiteness of it all, the group started to release some of the tremendous energy that such a concentration of talent might be expected to produce. Indeed, it seemed about to burst out of control in the Allegro section of Tchaikovsky's first movement, until the Andante arrived to rein it in and pull things back into a far less interesting status quo.

If that energy and excitement were fully incorporated into their vision of classical music, this group could really be something. As it was, on Sunday one longed to shatter the porcelain refinement of their overall presentation and find out what might lie inside.

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