Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Eckhart Ensemble

Yesterday I had the great good fortune of attending a concert by the Eckhart Ensemble in St. Thomas Episcopal Church here in Orange, VA., a gift to the community from the Orange Music Society. In trying to remember a classical concert of comparable power, I have to go back nearly 40 years to hearing Sviatoslav Richter in Constitution Hall as a schoolboy. The fact that the conductor last night, Victor Yampolsky, is also a Russian may or may not be coincidental. 

In any event, the effect of the music making was as transcendent (for me) as it can be as a listener, in that it felt like the few "flow" experiences I've had making music. I'm going to list a number of things that caught my attention - but it was the gestalt - the whole being greater than the sum of the parts - that made for such a memorable evening. 

One way of explaining the power of the music making is to say what it wasn't. There was nothing rote about it - these people were not reading through something the umpteenth time to get through a mandated "service". There was a feeling of spontaneity in every single measure they played, and they were obviously having a splendid time - they moved - they smiled - they showed all kinds of expressions on their faces and in their postures as they imbued the music with a rainbow of emotions. They were playing the music and were letting the music play them. 

The word "players" also gets across the idea they made the music sound like a play, or a story being told. This was especially the case on one number when the two soloists, an oboe and violin stood next to each other and let each other's gestures inform their playing, while the rest of the ensemble was something of a Greek chorus providing context and comment on their dialog. (J.S. Bach Concerto for Oboe and Violin, BWV 1060)

Maestro Yampolsky was amazing, both as a conductor and animateur . Just like a Tibetan lama giving a dharma talk, he began by giving his lineage, in which David Oistrakh loomed large and Vladimir Horowitz was mentioned. Then for each piece he gave a brief but incisive bit of its history and context - and how strongly he felt about its power.

His conducting was a marvel. I was in the front pew, just a couple of feet from the closest violinist, and could look up and see what a wonderful conductor he is and why the players were having such a good time. When called for, his gestures included an ictus, that slight bounce and change from going down to up indicating where the beat is. When I was in conservatory conducting class that was drilled into me, but it's amazing how many conductors get so caught up in swoops they leave it out. 

Instead of giving players "the hand" when he wanted them softer, he covered his mouth with his hand as if muting his voice. Overall, the use of dynamics was part of what gave the music such freshness in that he was always shaping phrases with great dynamic and gestural color. Not only did he get the group to play louder and softer, but the gestures they used in playing the different dynamics gave the music an expressive intensity and color beyond being simply louder and softer.

For me, one of the most striking things about his conducting were the starts and finishes of each piece. Before beginning a piece he would almost imperceptibly gesture the beat, then slowly amplify and intensify it - and only then begin to conduct the opening notes. Every time it sounded like a mountain stream bursting forth - or almost like a firework. And then at the end of each piece, the cutoff was subtly different - and the silence that followed was that deep silence that can only come after great music.

Maestro Yampolsky's resume in the program includes a lot of teaching and master classes, and watching him conduct it was clear how much he cares for the players and so enjoys bringing them to a higher level of musicianship. Part of the excitement of the evening was feeling the joy of the players in working with him. 

And the players! Only later did it occur to me what technique they must have to play with such musicality that I never noticed their technique. Beautiful tone, astonishing intonation, gorgeous phrasing and wonderful balance. All I heard was the music - though I did keep noticing what a terrific job the double bass player did in always giving just the right amount of bottom to the sound - and that the 1st oboist on his solo was either doing circular breathing or had an oxygen tank hidden under his coat or has astonishing lung capacity.

In closing, a couple of caveats. First, St. Thomas was my childhood church. Thomas Jefferson had a hand in its design and Robert E. Lee often tied Traveler to a tree that was still there when I was a child. The stained glass windows have a Proustian effect on me. And this past Lent I did the music for a Lenten lunch there (alto flute and guitar/singing) and between the wonderful acoustics and childhood memories it's a very special place for me - and to hear this concert in that venue was an over-the-top experience.

Also, just last weekend, one of the members of the ensemble, Kelly Peral, who's just moving back to Orange after growing up here, came to play soprano and sopranino recorder with me (on alto flute for Handel and then banjo/guitar for jazz standards and movie tunes) and Dr. Andy on cello. Hearing and playing with her tone, intonation and phrasing was a revelation - and I think prepared me to better appreciate what I heard last evening.


  1. Anonymous4/1/14 15:26

    Agreed, it was amazing. I need more classical music in my diet. Google suggests that they are a relatively new group

  2. From what I can tell - they come together from various places just at this time of year when they're on break from their regular jobs as musicians in high level groups - and that Gus Highstein, the 1st oboe, has a lot to do with organizing it. I just heard today that he was the conductor last year.