ECHO Chamber Orchestra Delights


by Abby Wasserman

ECHO Chamber Orchestra’s first concert in a year and a half, “A Musical Promenade,” was a promenade indeed. When patrons arrived at San Anselmo’s First Presbyterian Church for the 6:00 performance July 10, they were funneled through the garden to the Duncan Hall patio, where folding chairs were set up helter-skelter for the first part of the program.

Knowing this would challenge some audience members, flutist Carol Adee, ECHO ebullient personnel manager, promised popsicles for all who stayed to the end. On such a warm evening, it was a tantalizing incentive.

The concert opened with two of the three movements in Daniel Pinkham’s “Fanfare, Aria, and Echo for Two Horns and Timpani.” New Englander Pinkham (1923-2006) was a prominent organist and harpsichordist, and a composer in love with early music. Aria (Lento) opened with a mournful duet by hornists Beth Milne and Ruth Wilson, into which timpanist Christian Foster Howes insinuated an ominous rumble that raced and slowed. The voices of the horns, like human voices, blended and diverged, leapt and crouched, trembling on the knifepoint of dissonance, and rose in piquant harmonies. The canonic Echo ended with a thrice-repeated note--like a question for which there was no answer.

Next was the luscious Trio Sonata No. 1 in F major, ZWV 181/1 by the Czech Jan Dismas Zelenka, written in 1722. Oboists Jon Arneson and Margo Golding performed with dulcet and airy acrobatic phrases, and cellist Margaret Mores provided the baritone voice originally written for bassoon. The performance, just two movements (Adagio non troppo and Allegro) of the sonata’s four, wowed the audience with the compositional complexity and inventiveness of this less-known Baroque master.

Zelenka wrote a lot of sacred music that has been performed in the church, but his secular music, on a par with that of his admirer Bach, was only rediscovered in the 1950s. As Ms. Mores’ cello furnished the anchor to earth, the oboes went on flights of intricate fancy. The performers played with ease, depth, and expressiveness.

The progressive “musical promenade” now moved chairs and all to the church’s lower courtyard to hear a quartet of violinists Charmian Stewart and Wendy Loder, violist Margaret Eldridge, and cellist Joel Cohen play four foot-tapping, head-bobbing, and heartrending Scandinavian folk tunes that were arranged by the Danish String Quartet. They began with the Danish traditional tune “5 Sheep 4 Goats,” which, while joyful on the surface, has a strain of melancholy like so much Nordic music. The slower-paced Swedish tune “Waltz after Lasse in Lyby” was next, and it flowed like waves or seabirds in flight.

On to “Rybers #8,” a lively and intricately woven tune that held suggestions of bagpipes; and finally, “Sekstur from Vendsyssel - The Peat Dance,” a rouser in 6/8 time related to the British jig. At times it was like a child’s chasing game, or a game of Catch the Tune; sometimes the sound was like bees humming, and sometimes it was dark and dissonant before turning sunny. When the notes faded, the audience cheered. It was a high point of the concert.

Gregory Wanamaker’s Sonata for Clarinet and Tenor Saxophone (2002), performed by Matt Rupert, clarinet, and Robert Beard, saxophone, followed. The composition has four movements but just two were performed: “Arrival” and “Departure.” Here the composer’s intent seemed to explore similarities between the sax and clarinet, which are rarely paired. That’s the surface, but a great deal goes on beneath the surface of his exploration. The sonata is quite popular and has been performed over 500 times and is featured on five recordings. At once duet and duel, it evokes the motion, traffic-light synchronization, and near-fatal collisions of a big-city street during rush hour: a high-speed catch-me-if-you-can, a conversation at warp speed, with harmonious meetings and jarring separations, and never a time to rest—all played this evening with virtuosity that left one breathless.

The audience then moved into the (too warm) church sanctuary for the final three performances, with ECHO musicians helping move the chairs and stack them. Once inside the church they presented “The Other Side,” a pandemic-themed tone poem in three parts by Matthew Rupert, Kevin Gordon, and ECHO Director Daniel Canosa. “Fragments: Elegy” by Mr. Rupert opens the piece, a eulogy to everything lost during the past year and a half: plans cancelled, the isolation of sheltering in place, the ways individuals have found to cope with drastic changes and fear. It opened with the tolling of the gong, evoking the appearance of the virus and foretelling tragedy. Intensity rose as other instruments joined in until the whole orchestra sounded a collective elegiac cry. Christian Foster Howes’ percussion playing was outstanding.

“Contagion: Agitato” by Mr. Gordon expressed the anxiety and pain of a silent killer, viscerally capturing the anguish of never knowing when and whom it would strike. It also began with strikes of the gong, then an alarmed flutter of the strings leading to a blaring of horns that seemed to sound the alarm felt as the COVID-19 virus spread fast. Flutes fluttered fearfully and the drum beat a dread-saturated ostinato. Again, the gong sounded as the movement closed.

Mr. Canosa’s “The Shore: Chorale” expressed the tentative emergence from isolation and its cautious celebration. It began with the bright sound of the xylophone and angelic unison of the string section led by concertmaster Odin Mitaine. There was a palpable lifting of spirits and a melodic sweetness signaling reconciliation and acceptance of changes wrought by the pandemic. Still, “Chorale’s” message was not exactly optimistic, seeming to end on a note of uncertainty. “The Other Side” hopefully will be performed again by ECHO and may have a place in the canon of pandemic-themed musical compositions.

Two Mozart compositions completed the programming. Carol Adee was soloist for the lovely Andante in C for Flute and Orchestra K. 315 (1778). A stripped-down orchestra of strings, two oboes and two horns were perfect, and Ms. Adee played with satiny grace and delicate, almost playful, lightness, her interpretation inviting the audience to share in its beauty and her love for the instrument.

The evening’s finale was the majestic D major Symphony, No. 35, K. 385 (“Haffner”). Its first movement (Allegro con spiritu) was performed with vigorous rhythmic interest and cascading runs, and built excitement. In the Minuetto the music became quietly blissful, and led to a Presto conclusion that was both celebratory and triumphal. The performance tempos were brisk throughout, and the rousing playing in the finale prompted a standing ovation.

As popsicles were passed out in the patio, the audience mingled with the musicians, and it was clear that ECHO Chamber Orchestra is back in full force.

Published July 15, 2021 on