The Eau Claire Chamber Orchestra is opening its 22nd season by playing the hits — specifically a classical work by Paul McCartney that incorporates some of the songs from the Beatle’s solo career.
In putting “Working Classical” on the program, ECCO music director Frank A. Watkins said, the music will showcase a different side of the orchestra.
“People don’t know much about (McCartney’s) classical music, so it was great to kind of feature that on this concert,” Watkins said in a phone interview. “People are used to hearing us play classical music only, and not really delve into newer artists or more contemporary music, so this is a more contemporary sound for ECCO.”
The concert will be at 2 p.m. Sunday in Pablo Center at the Confluence’s RCU Theatre.
Different though it is, Watkins continued, the work should be recognizable to fans of Sir Paul’s pop music.
“It’s different because it’s classical music, it’s not rock ’n’ roll, but it still sounds like Paul McCartney,” he said.
The album “Working Classical” consists of three 10- to 12-minute compositions plus 11 shorter selections. Among those 11 works are shorter versions of songs such as “My Love” and “Maybe I’m Amazed” as well as newer pieces written in memory of McCartney’s wife Linda.
Elizabeth Hart, general manager of ECCO, agreed the composer’s name will draw attention.
“I think the McCartney will really pique everybody’s interest; I know it did me,” she said in a phone interview.
Hart is especially interested in how the composition will make use of the various sources that make up “Working Classical.”
“It’ll be interesting to see what they do with Paul McCartney, especially with tunes I think people are going to remember from their life,” she said.
Piano soloists featured
The concert also will feature talented piano soloists, both of whom are members of the UW-Eau Claire music faculty. Lori Cruciani will perform with the orchestra on the Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) Concerto Grosso No. 1 for string orchestra with piano obbligato; and Namji Kim, back from a year’s sabbatical focusing on Gabriel Faure (1845-1924), will perform on the composer’s Ballade in F sharp major.
Watkins explained how the three works will complement each other. Bloch wrote Concerto Grosso No. 1 as a kind of response to the criticisms against the old techniques, he said. “And so I thought by combining that with Faure, who was so classical, so romantic, such a forefront composer as far as Expressionism, that those would pair nicely together. And then why not put McCartney with that to talk about how classical music transcends all genres and all composers.”
Hart said she is interested in how Bloch put modern sensibilities to work on the “old-fashioned form” of a concerto grosso. “I’m just really curious about what he did with it,” she said.
As for the Faure piece, Hart, who is a pianist, said the composer tends to be “deceptively hard.”
“It sounds really pleasant and easy, but then ... to make all the notes come out evenly and perfect you need a developed technique and a very mature ability. And Namji has that, so that will be a fun piece too.”
Key of diversity
The first program fits with what Watkins sees as the priorities for each season. “I think every season must have variety, it must have diversity, it must have new ideas and new techniques but also those we grew up listening to, so those familiar ideas as well,” he said.
That diversity extends to the audience as well, as ECCO will continue its tradition of offering a free family concert in January. This year’s performance is set for 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25, in the RCU Theatre.
Featured works are Camille Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals” and “a really interesting percussion feature,” Watkins said.
While free, tickets must be picked up in advance.
“I think our youngest listeners are our most important listeners,” he said. “They’re the ones who will champion music for generations to come.”
Watkins also pointed out research that shows listening to classical music can raise children’s test scores and enhance their education overall.
Education is highlighted in ECCO’s mission statement, Hart said, including as it relates to young people, “so they can help perpetuate the art and just enjoy it more.”
The family concert also will reflect another special aspect of the ECCO season: featuring all four members of the UW-Eau Claire piano faculty. In addition to Cruciani and Kim on Sunday, William Whipple will be soloist during the family performance, and Nick Phillips is soloist for the concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16.
An additional season highlight will be ECCO’s collaboration with the Master Singers of Eau Claire. Last year the two groups combined for “Requiem for the Living,” a piece by Dan Forrest. This year they will work together on another composition by Forrest: “Lux, the Dawn From on High.”
The latest collaboration will take the stage at the Master Singers’ 2 p.m. March 15 concert at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Eau Claire and ECCO’s 7:30 p.m. March 21 performance in Pablo Center’s Jamf Theatre.
“They’re just a phenomenal ensemble,” Watkins said. “We really feel that our size between both ensembles really meshes well together. And we’ve had a great relationship for years.”
Watkins, who is director of choral studies at UW-Eau Claire, said the greatest reward of his ECCO leadership involves the people he makes music with.
“Working with these great musicians is just a great honor,” he said. “They’re fantastic and just so innately interesting and great professionals.”
In addition, he complimented the “great and very supportive” ECCO board as well as the community in general.
For the orchestra members, Hart said, the joys of the commitment offer musical rewards and camaraderie.
“Everyone likes a challenge.” she said. Musicians in the world’s biggest orchestras already know 80 percent of the music they’re going to play, Hart said. But for ECCO’s players, “They’re just hungry for new music all the time. And so, for example, this concert coming up, nobody has played any of this before.”
Hart also mentioned the community aspect among talented people to which Watkins alluded, explaining, “The musicians know and respect each other, and so it’s always fun to get together and play.”