The color of music

PCMS presents ECCO and pianist Shai Wosner

3 minute read
Not the foursome in black you expected: the ensemble of ECCO. (Photo by Pete Checchia.)
Not the foursome in black you expected: the ensemble of ECCO. (Photo by Pete Checchia.)

Color of every imaginable variety exploded on the Perelman Theater stage on October 25 as ECCO (the East Coast Chamber Orchestra) and Israel-born pianist Shai Wosner presented a program of electrifying diversity, rainbow visuals, and literal foot-stomping as part of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society series.

The thrills began even before the opening work, a stirring performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, the “Serioso.” Imagine expecting the same-old-same-old foursome in black, only to have a group of 17 energetic musicians rush onto the stage, the dozen women in the ensemble attired in vividly colored Grecian gowns and jumpsuits ranging from scarlet to sequin-laced black to smiley-face yellow.

Stormy ‘Serioso’ and Schumann

The ensemble launched into a chamber orchestra rendition of “Serioso,” a stormy work that foreshadows Beethoven’s great late quartets to come. The ensemble not only delivered crisp phrasing and spine-shivering dynamics, but moved with the spirit of the piece, the colorfully clad artists swaying like poppies in a windstorm. The effect was pure magic.

I like to be surprised at classical concerts, and my expectations were turned upside down in a good sense at every turn. Having heard a number of Clara Schumann’s songs last weekend in Princeton, I was pleased to note three of her songs on this program. Once again, ECCO caught us off-guard with Lieder performed not by a vocalist, but by the string musicians themselves, each one an accomplished soloist. Hearing the songs performed vocalise invited us to value the melodies as pure music, untinged by the literal meaning of lyrics. There was a fresh, youthful edge to “Love’s Magic,” an imaginative use of plucked strings in “If You Love for Beauty,” and the rapturous “He Came in Storm and Rain,” which may have influenced Schumann’s husband Robert’s style, rather than the opposite, as assumed for so many years.

Wosner and Cerrone

ECCO performed a rousing rendition of the Baroque composer Francesco Geminiani’s variations on La Follia, arranged for string orchestra by M. Wiancko, complete with bow bouncing, playing right up to the bridge, and stomping, first one foot, and later both, in sequence. Clacking sticks, played like castanets, added a fandango flair to this wildly enjoyable presentation.

Mastery of the keys: pianist Shai Wosner. (Photo by Marco Borggrev.)
Mastery of the keys: pianist Shai Wosner. (Photo by Marco Borggrev.)

A highlight of the program came after intermission, when Shai Wosner joined the group for a performance of a new work by Christopher Cerrone, a piano concerto titled The Air Suspended. Commissioned by the Phoenix Symphony for Wosner and dedicated to him, the work was inspired by writings about changes in the weather, including the phenomenon of ground-to-cloud lightning. This three-movement composition replicates the sounds of nature with startling acuity. Following the crackling intensity of lightning bursts in the first movement, the composition proceeded to sounds of rain, perhaps pattering against a tent, falling at different speeds into a pond or creek, splashing against shrubbery. Wosner’s hands at times pounded so sharply on the keyboard that from the back, he looked like he was chopping onions.

And yet for all the weather effects, there is a driving intelligence and creative development absorbing the listener’s attention throughout. Wosner’s mastery of the keyboard is extraordinary in this fascinating work, creating a rumbling in the lower register at the beginning and flying between high and low notes with precision and responsiveness to the sea of strings around him.

Cerrone was on hand to offer a few preparatory words and to accept enthusiastic applause at the conclusion of this first Philadelphia performance.

A Mozart finish

The program ended with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat major, K. 449. Here Wosner offered a bold, clean, and expressive reading, clearly articulating the many lovely, yet complex melodies that weave through the work’s three movements. However, the strings-only arrangement (Mozart indicated oboes and horns as well) resulted in a sense of heaviness, weighed down by bass notes which became too prominent without the piercing brilliance of the double-reeds and the horn’s echo, far-away and bright.

What, When, Where

The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society presents the East Coast Chamber Orchestra with guest artist Shai Wosner on piano. Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor (the “Serioso”); Clara Schumann, A Love Suite (arranged by M. Wiancko); Francesco Geminiani, La Follia Variations for String Orchestra (arranged by M. Wiancko); Christopher Cerrone, The Air Suspended; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat Major, K. 449. October 25, 2019 at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 569-8080

The Kimmel Center is an ADA-compliant venue. Wheelchair-accessible seats or upholstered, loose chairs are available for purchase online, by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999/(215) 893-1999 TTY, or by emailing [email protected].

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation