Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Ricciotti Ensemble, PART ONE

I first became acquainted with the Ricciotti Ensemble in 1987. Henry Brant introduced us. They are a Dutch youth orchestra who play in the street. Literally. The bus drives up, the forty-something members of the Ricciotti get out, they take music stands from large wooden cases, set them up, take three-ring binders of parts from other cases, the cellists sit on the cases, they tune as quickly as possible (more or less), the conductor gives a downbeat and they are off and running.

The first performance of the group was intended to be the last. The group was formed to play a single concert of the music the Dutch nobleman Unico Willem von Wassenaur, who composed six concerti in the early eighteenth century that were engraved by Carlo Ricciotti (an Italian violinst) and for many years misattributed to Giovanni Pergolesi. Igor Stravinsky, believing the Pergolesi attribution, used the Wassenaur concerti as a good chunk of the material for Pulcinella. This little musicological puzzle-knot began to unravel in the 1960s, and in 1970 a group of Dutch teenaged string players was asked to play a single concert of Wassenaur’s music, in a new edition based on the original eighteenth century publication. Instead of introducing “a group of teenaged string players” the announcer blurted out “Ladies and gentlemen, the RICCIOTTI ENSEMBLE.” The group enjoyed playing together, and the name stuck. Forty-one years later, and under their fifth director, they are still going strong. They don’t play Wassenaur much any more, and they rarely appear on a stage.

The Ricciotti have played on the street, in public squares, in old-folks homes, in prisons, schools, and even major venues in major cities. They have traveled to many countries, including Russia, Bosnia, Spain, the Dutch Caribbean, and the United States. (Phyllis and I organized the US tour in 1991—the only one to date. That needs to change.) The goal of the orchestra is to bring symphonic music to people who would not otherwise experience it. An excellent summary of their history and their aesthetic can be found on their extensive website. Begin at:


I sometimes describe the Ricciotti as “the world’s greatest orchestra.” I got this phrase from one of the founding members, the Dutch violinist Jan Erik van Regteren Altena (Mondriaan Quartet, Schoenberg Ensemble, etc.). Other orchestras are bigger, and may play better in tune, but the Ricciotti has an aesthetic audacity that is unique. And if aesthetic audacity is your criterion, then it is absolutely the world’s greatest orchestra. It is artistic populism writ large, and it is an extraordinary success. It has been a training ground for many of the finest musicians in the Netherlands. It has spawned a remarkable repertory of new short pieces for orchestra (long orchestra pieces are SO yesterday) and unique arrangements. It insists on having two alto saxophones in the group, on a regular basis. And its repertory systematically breaks down the artificial categories that so debase and poison our musical discourse.

The Ricciotti repertory, in a nutshell, consists of short classical pieces that fit, or can be adapted for their instrumentation; arrangements of popular music; and avant garde works written especially for them. Over the years hundreds of new pieces and arrangements have been generated for them. My first piece for the Ricciotti was Atmo-Rag. (My idea of a rag by Brahms—which morphs into a rag by Ives—oh hell, it’s really a rag by Neely Bruce.) Not only did they ask me to write it—they asked me to guest-conduct. I went all over the Netherlands with them (another story for another time) and heard the piece something like twenty times. I would tweak it in the evening and hand out fresh edits and even an occasional change-of-note before the next performance. I learned more about how to write for orchestra from the Ricciotti Ensemble than from any text I had read, or from any of my teachers (and they were excellent). Truly, there is no substitute for experience. I learned about some really sneaky impossible trills on the oboe, I learned a lot about register, and I started my long, unsuccessful journey toward writing effectively for string instruments. (Though I have to say I’m getting better at it. How DID Corelli do that? And he made it sound so easy…)

Atmo-Rag was followed by the Santa Ynez Waltz (by the mid-1990s the Ricciotti had played it over 150 times), “One, two, ready, go!” and in 1997 the Grand Polka de bataille. The four-orchestra version of this piece is really a new work, I have to say. So that makes five pieces for the world’s greatest orchestra. I’ll write a sixth one whenever they want it—some ideas are already running around in my head.

So now I have introduced this unique and fabulous organization. Tomorrow a brief blog about what they actually did last Sunday night in the Westergasterrein.

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