Just when you thought East Nashville couldn’t get any cooler, along comes The Eastwood Ensemble.
Founded in 2010, the group, which performed Sunday afternoon at Eastwood Christian Church, makes music of the most small-d democratic kind. Any style of music is welcome. Indeed, every sort of art is fair game. The ensemble’s concerts always include a “performance partner,” which can be a classical or pop musician, painter, poet or even culinary artist. Sunday’s partner was the terrific singer-songwriter Jonell Mosser.
Eastwood Ensemble has an equally populist approach to its programming. Founder and artistic director Tia Thomason insists that the group’s musicians pick their own music, so the players have a deep personal commitment to each piece. Concerts are intimate and casual, with the musicians chatting informally about the music between performances. Occasionally, the group performs in some of East Nashville’s historic homes, a worthy attempt to return chamber music to its origins in the drawing room.
The only thing about Sunday’s concert that could be described as “elite” was the level of the playing. Many of Eastwood’s all-volunteer musicians are full-time Nashville Symphony players. Naturally, they played the music of Beethoven, Prokofiev and Morton Gould with consummate skill and convincing emotion.
The concert opened with four movements from a true Beethoven rarity, the composer’s Serenade, Op. 25. This is one of Beethoven’s most graceful, tasteful and charming pieces. The texture of the work – arranged for the unusual combination of flute, violin and viola – is airy and light, but that doesn’t mean the music itself is slight. Beethoven’s musical arguments unfold with their usual logic, and his rhythms impart a sense of boundless energy and vitality.
Flutist Kathryn Ladner, violinist Anna Lisa Hoepfinger and violist Clare Yang played this music with the immediacy and spontaneity of old friends engaged in an animated conversation. Ladner’s golden tone was the highlight of the performance. Hoepfinger and Yang provided nuanced and sensitive support.
Appropriately enough, the group’s performance of Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34 just happened to coincide with Israeli Memorial Day. This is one of Prokofiev’s most satisfying pieces, one filled with memorable, klezmer-inflected melodies. There’s something about Jewish folk music that manages to sound both festive and tragic at the same time, and clarinetist Tia Thomason certainly captured this duality. The rest of the ensemble – violinists Kristi Seehafer and Louise Morrison, violist Hari Bernstein, cellist Bradley Mansell and pianist Charlene Harb – played with polish and sincere emotion.
Jonell Mosser, the afternoon’s performance partner, joined guitarist Todd Lombardo for three of her songs. A regular at the Bluebird Café, Mosser sang with a silky soprano voice, and her performances of such songs as “Good Thing” and “Hummingbird” were remarkably soulful. For his part, Lombardo provided bluesy accompaniment.
Clarinetist Daniel Lochrie and double bassist Kevin Jablonski ended the concert with an entertaining rendition of music from Morton Gould’s Benny’s Gig. Gould wrote the piece for Benny Goodman. In his pre-performance remarks, Lochrie talked about Gould’s dedication.
Gould wrote that he hoped the music would please the legendary big-band clarinetist, “and if it doesn’t you’re stuck with it.” Not surprisingly, music with that kind of dedication had few serious moments. Lochrie and Jablonski had fun with the piece, giving it a jazzy and lighthearted interpretation.
Sunday’s concert was a benefit for Real Families Real Moms of East Nashville. All of the Eastwood Ensemble concerts support nonprofit organizations in East Nashville. It’s a worthy mission for such a community-minded group.