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Changes don't faze chamber orchestra; Fire alarm sends unexpected tones through Tuckerman Hall.

Byline: Jonathan Blumhofer

WORCESTER -- Usually it's the cellphone that's the culprit, ringing obnoxiously at the most inopportune moment, shattering concentration and garnering looks of annoyance (or worse) at the offending party. But, as was discovered on Saturday night at Tuckerman Hall, you can one-up a cellphone.

Such was the situation when, about a minute before the East Coast Chamber Orchestra finished playing a new piece by David Ludwig, the hall's fire alarm started blaring. Apparently a child in the audience had pulled a certain lever and, after an orderly exit and re-entry, the concert continued, sans mishap.

Of all the unexpected things that could have happened during the program, though, this was perhaps the most appropriate. ECCO is, after all, a pretty hot group: exciting players who perform invitingly broad repertoire in any and all settings.

As if to emphasize that point, when the alarm sounded they were concluding the local premiere of Ludwig's "Virtuosity.'' This is a kind of non-threatening new music, very audience-friendly, if not particularly memorable on its own merits.

In it, Ludwig happily wears his compositional influences on his sleeve. There's a neo-Baroque opening movement showcasing two violins, mostly in their upper registers; an episode for solo viola that alternates brooding, lyrical lines with buzzing, quicksilver exchanges with the orchestra; a discursive section for solo cello; a concise "microconcerto'' for double bass; and everything wraps up with a final fugue.

What a fugue has to do, stylistically, with 21st-century music is anyone's guess, though perhaps this one was just introducing Ludwig's quotation from Bach's famous D minor chaconne that ends "Virtuosity.'' Regardless, one came away from this hearing most impressed by Ludwig's handling of the music's many transitional sections, which, in their usage of various extended techniques, seemed to draw on much more intriguing sound worlds and musical vocabularies than did the bulk of the solo parts.

Even so, the music's demands were all handled with assurance and aplomb by the ensemble.

Far more successful, musically, was the other "new'' piece on the program, Judd Greenstein's propulsive juggernaut, "Four on the Floor.'' Originally written for string quartet, it's a piece that, in the words of its composer, is meant to convey the "energy and vibe'' of music that "rocks.'' So it does.

Building on a small rhythmic motive, "Four on the Floor'' shoots off in all sorts of directions, never letting up in energy, excitement, or interest. ECCO gave a visceral run-through of this exhilarating music, one that drained not a little adrenaline from the audience, as well as the orchestra.

The evening began with Mozart's charming Divertimento in B-flat (K. 137). This is a prime example of musical wallpaper -- in Mozart's day, the divertimento was essentially a genre of background music -- though you'd never guess it from the sophistication of the music's melodic strands or its harmonic language. On Saturday, its first movement sounded a bit rough -- the accents packed a little too much of a punch -- but ECCO balanced itself nicely over the subsequent two, one vitally fast, the other a rhythmically screwy minuet-finale.

A string orchestra transcription of Ravel's String Quartet rounded things out. In general, expanding chamber music for larger ensembles is a risky business, even when done by the composer (see Alban Berg's "Lyric Suite'').

But ECCO's was both an arrangement and performance that successfully transplanted the tricky balance between intimacy, intensity, and electricity from small canvas to large. Yes, there were moments that weren't as clear as they could have been and some sections (including, surprisingly, some of the quintuplet exchanges in the finale) lacked the bite ordinarily encountered in the original version of this piece.

On the whole, though, the score's details fell into place. The third movement was pure magic, hauntingly beautiful. Ravel's tripping rhythmic figures in the second movement danced with ease and humor. And the pulsing finale (as well as the opening movement) benefited from the judicious addition of basses to give added weight to the sound.

In addition to the Ravel, ECCO brought two further arrangements. Eric Satie's Gymnopedie no. 1 was less a "palate cleanser'' than a study of shifting instrumental colors and expressive ambiguity, while Carlo Gesualdo's Tristis est anima mea wrung anguish from notes that spoke, perhaps, even more deeply without the aid of words.
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Title Annotation:Living
Author:Blumhofer, Jonathan
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Mar 17, 2014
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