ECCO, the East Coast Chamber Orchestra, a conductor-less ensemble of about 20 string players, has been attracting listeners since 2001. However, the 12-year-old ensemble arose without long-range plans. Violist Jonathan Vinocour, a founding member of the group explains.
“ECCO started informally,” he says in a telephone interview. “We were a bunch of musicians just out of music schools. Mainly we were in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. All of us were playing chamber music or solos. We got together to read orchestral music for fun. Our idea was to play great orchestral literature as an expanded chamber group.
“Playing in an orchestra is more powerful and communal than playing in a chamber ensemble,” Vinocour says. “You’re a little anonymous in an orchestra.”
“Eventually, we decided to play a concert. It was fun for us and fun for the audience. So we kept going.” ECCO performs Tuesday, February 12, at 7:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton campus, as a special event in the Princeton University Concerts series.
Marna Seltzer, director of Princeton University Concerts, thinks of the performance as a gift to the community. Tickets cost $10; students pay $5, and subscribers to the series attend gratis.
Breaking new ground, ECCO’s Princeton concert dissolves the gap between performers and audience. The ensemble has invited amateur string players to join them in Benjamin Britten’s “Simple Symphony.” Other pieces on the program are by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Peter Tchaikovsky, and Francesco Geminiani.
ECCO violinist Michi Wiancko has updated Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso No. 12, which is based on Archangelo Corelli’s “La Follia,” by adding unconventional harmonies, contemporary extended techniques, and jazz and Latin elements.
Joining professionals and amateurs in performance grew out of an experiment initiated by Seltzer during the visit of Ensemble ACJW to Princeton during an exam week in 2012. Ensemble ACJW is a two-year program (or academy) of Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School, and the Weill Music Institute (with each contributing a letter to the name). All members of ECCO are alumni or current fellows of the academy.
With Ensemble ACJW on campus, Seltzer arranged for a reading of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 where Princeton students and concert subscribers joined the ensemble. Though the original plan was to play only the first two movements of the symphony, the audible collective disappointment at the end of the second movement led the group to tackle the rest of the piece. Recalling the joy of the reading, Seltzer says, “We decided then and there that we would try to make this into an annual event.” In 2013 that event is the ECCO concert.
Final plans for the concert call for 18 ECCO instrumentalists and 26 amateur participants, making a total of 54 on stage. A waiting list of about a dozen volunteers could not be accommodated initially. For the performance, the first stands of each section will consist of an ECCO member and a volunteer. ECCO members will rotate between movements so that each volunteer has the opportunity to play alongside an ECCO member.
Seltzer, a violinist, has decided not to play in the concert because she didn’t want to deprive someone else of the opportunity to play. “I’m hoping for a no-show at the last minute,” she says.
Parts for the amateur participants were sent to them on February 1, 11 days before the concert. Performers in the Britten piece will not rehearse before they perform. Seltzer notes “‘The Simple Symphony’ is not all that simple. One movement is entirely pizzicato,” or plucked.
ECCO violinist Nick Kendall leads the ensemble/audience performance of the Britten piece. Kendall appeared in Princeton last season as a member of “Time for Three,” the unclassifiable trio consisting of two violins and double bass, given to “pop-up” performances, as well as to performances from the stage.
Kendall won his place as leader of the Britten piece through the democratic procedures that mark ECCO’s method of operations. That is, he declared that he wanted to lead the piece. Founding member Vinocour says, “If a person speaks up, we assume that they really care.
“ECCO is truly democratic,” Vinocour says. “We make very communal decisions. No single person makes decisions. We have committees. Programming is done like that and personnel decisions are like that.” Preliminary work on finances, media decisions, and website management are also handled by committees, none of which has term limits. “People volunteer for committees or drop out after serving a while,” Vinocour says. “Decisions can take time. We send a lot of E-mails.”
“Sometimes we have conference calls,” he says, “especially if there’s a pressing issue. We had a conference call to discuss issues for the Princeton concert — outreach, pop up concerts, and incorporating the amateurs.”
According to an anonymous source, pop up concerts set for Frist Campus Center at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. on Monday, February 11, can give the curious a chance to hear ECCO in advance of the concert.
ECCO makes its musical decisions at rehearsals. “I don’t want to overemphasize the role of leadership,” Vinocour says. “We try to have musical leadership come from the group as a whole. We’re not all sitting down and studying the score. We learn through the process of rehearsing whom we need to be paying attention to at each transition.
“We get together for very focused periods preceding a tour. Then we disperse. We make musical decisions when everybody is there. Sometimes there are heated discussions, but we always come to a decision spontaneously.
“Rehearsing has gotten more difficult than it was in the beginning, when ECCO was more East Coast than it has gotten to be,” Vinocour says. “I’m in San Francisco now. Some members have moved to Europe, some have bowed out.”
“One of the issues that’s tough for ECCO is that now a fair number of players are in symphony orchestras. Their schedules go in one-week blocks. If you take time off from the symphony, you have to take off the entire week. ECCO performances often cover more than one orchestral week. At San Francisco the week begins on Tuesday. To play the entire February ECCO tour would require three weeks of San Francisco vacation time.”
“I’m not playing the Princeton concert,” says Vinocour, a 2001 Princeton graduate. Regretfully, he adds, “I’m playing everything but Princeton.” Nevertheless, Vinocour will have his own Princeton interaction coaching campus instrumental groups on Sunday and Monday, February 10 and 11, after the San Francisco orchestra performs in Philadelphia.
Vinocour grew up in Rochester, New York. As an undergraduate he majored in chemistry and won the Sudler Prize for excellence in performance, execution, or composition in one of the arts. His senior thesis dealt with photophysical studies of synthetic peptides. His undergraduate musical activities included playing in the Haddonfield Symphony, now the Camden-based Symphony in C. He took performance classes at the university and performed with both the Princeton Orchestra and Richardson Chamber Players. “I did as much as I could within the Princeton music world,” he says.
Asked how he balanced chemistry and music as a Princeton undergraduate, Vinocour says, “That was tough. Depending on where you are in the semester, you might not have time to practice. My practice was inconsistent. Sometimes I practiced in the chemistry lab. There’s a lot of waiting around if you’re doing research.
“I was never fully sure that I would go on to a career in science,” he says. “I was pretty serious about music from the beginning. It wasn’t a switch; I was uncertain what to pursue when I entered Princeton. After graduation I attended the New England Conservatory [in Boston]. “As long as you play a good audition, they don’t care what your major was.
“I was not able to get back for reunions,” Vinocour says about his upcoming visit to the Princeton campus. “There was always a tour happening. Now I’m excited about seeing the music department and the new chemistry building, and connecting with people I knew.
“ECCO will really enjoy playing in Richardson,” Vinocour predicts. “I wish I was playing the concert.”
ECCO, Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton Unviersity. Tuesday, February 12, 7:30 p.m. $5 to $10. Free for subscribers. www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org or 609-258-9220.