Published 03/18/2013 12:00 AM Updated 03/17/2013 11:57 PM
Hyewon Kim of New York, a cello player and one of nine competitors in the 54th annual Instrumental Competition in Evans Hall at ConnecticutCollege, waits for her turn to perform. At left is Gay Clarkson of Waterford, the competition's chairwoman. Finalists from top music conservatories across the country competed Sunday for a first prize of $3,000 and the possibility of soloing with the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra during its 2013-14 concert season.
Article published Mar 17, 2013
A sonic showcase for the ECSO and star billing for a key principal
By Milton Moore, Day Staff Writer
New London — This was pretty much everything you could ask for from an orchestral concert: large-scale musical conceptions, showy displays of virtuosity, gripping moments of emotion and, above all, sonic showpieces that gave proof to why a symphony orchestra is made up ofso many diverse voices.
Saturday night at the GardeArtsCenter, music director Toshi Shimada led the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra in a sizzling program of 20th century works, leaving the audience breathless with the shattering finale to Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5. Sharing center stage with Shimada was long-time ECSO principal flutist Nancy Chaput, featured in Christopher Rouse's 1993 Flute Concerto.
This long, five-movement concerto, constructed as an arc with a pair of song like outer movements, a pair of almost manic scherzos and an elegiac central heart, is built of contrasts, but the one constant Saturday was Chaput's mastery. In the Enya-inspired Gaelic-flavored song movements, her phrasing flowed naturally, almost breath-like, even in leaps of wide intervals. Particularly in the final movement, alone in a reverie spinning melody over low strings, her heartfelt simplicity of statement was hypnotic.
In the wild dances of the two scherzos, where she performed breath-defying feats of ostinato, her ability to fill the hall and command the moment were central to the work's success. This is a complex score, full of the push/pull of dissonance and relief, and Shimada kept the often-raucus sectional play exciting and vivid.
The heart and soul of the concerto is the central elegy, in which Chaput spun an austere musical tragedy over equally spare winds and strings, only to have a warm rush of pure emotion rise in the strings, again and again, to bring comfort. It was a highly theatrical concept and highly affecting performance.
The program opened with a well-paced reading of Barber's Overture to "School for Scandal,"and it ended with that vast exercise in orchestral color and thematic ambiguity, Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony in D Minor.
Written in 1937 in a desperate attempt to save not only his career, but perhaps his life, after the composer's music was condemned on the front page of Pravda, this purposefully crowd pleasing work by the master of parody and sarcasm asks one of the central questions about life in the 20th century: can anything be trusted on face value? Was this most facile and sardonic of composers sincere in music that feels heartfelt, even uplifting — or does it even matter?
Shostakovich was, above all, a technical master whose orchestration alone provides thrills, and Shimada took the Garde audience on a tour of just about everything an orchestra can do. From the opening, uneasy and jagged theme, the string sections were powerful and focused. The movement came to full boil in the development, the motoric rhythms driving incessant canonic repeats that layered through the sections. The ECSO has never sounded better than in this terrifying, militaristic march, that jagged opening theme snarling on steroids. And once again Chaput was in the spotlight, as her sweet naïve flute melody emerged from the bombast.
The goofy Austrian dances and spoofy sendup of a Bruckner scherzo of the second movement provided comic relief, a trio of bassoons conjuring images of big-shoed clowns dancing, anairy obbligato by concertmaster Stephan Tieszen offering sonic contrast.
The one section of the symphony where Shostakovich dropped his guard and showed true emotion is the long, heart-wrenching lamentation of the largo. Here, Shimada drew rich vibrato from the strings as the seemingly endless melody became increasingly liturgical, until the wind ensemble rose to conjure the effect of an organ. Shimada's command of the dynamics in thegut-wrenching final pages gave weight to the electronic celeste and harp paired in themovement's desolate conclusion.
The big booming finale, with its ostentatious embrace of the major, has long been debated. At its premier, the finale was seen as a heroic rescue, but Saturday, it was far more ambiguous.
In the controversial memoirs "Testimony" (considered by many to be a hoax), the composer dismisses the finale of the symphony. "The rejoicing is forced, created under threat,"Shostakovich says. "It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, 'Your businessis rejoicing …'"
The urgency of the finale, with timpani and bass drum booming, was undeniable. But the effect of the coda, with the incessant keening string figures, was much more one of terror than triumph. Shostakovich probably would have approved.
Article published Jan 13, 2013
Young violinist proves a show-stopper with the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra
By Milton Moore, Day Staff Writer
New London — With the right soloist and the right attitude, there are few show-stoppers in the classical repertoire to upstage Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. Saturday night at the GardeArtsCenter, violinist Chelsea Starbuck Smith got it right on all counts.
The winner of the 2012 ECSO Instrumental Competition, Smith dominated the stage and electrified the audience with her high-powered and knowing performance with the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra led by Music Director Toshi Shimada. Smith performed with the oversize sound essential for a soloist, a spot-on intonation and fearless attack in some of the daunting passage work of this earthy, rough-and-tumble piece.
Nowhere was her technical aplomb and bravado more exciting than in the blazing final pages of the whirlwind last movement. When many violinist's flag after so many demanding measures, emerging from the lyrical third theme of the rondo to start the coda, Smith smiled as she attacked the blistering stops driving to the finale.
Shimada, bent at the knees as if exhorting her on, shared her delight.
This concerto, once considered all but unplayable, needs a sense of danger, like a careening bobsled run, to have its best effect, and Easton native Smith, both confident and commanding, repeatedly pushed tempo in the first movement, creating some moments of bad ensemble but building a certain frisson that added to the excitement.
Dressed in a strapless purple gown, the young JuilliardSchool student was a compelling presence on the stage. In the opening movement, she ended rising phrases with a toss of her head and a flourish of the bow, and she was oddly reminiscent of that most patrician of violinist, Jascha Heifetz, in some mannerisms. Like Heifetz, she would draw herself to full height and hold her chin high and close her eyes in long legatos, and in the lyric moments of the final movement, much like Heifetz, she bent her head low to rest her cheek against her violin in seeming meditation.
Whether playing dark gritty stops, the singing lines of the andante or the grand first movement theme with a skittery delicacy and playfulness, Smith had the audience on the edge of their seats, with many, like Shimada, simply grinning in the pleasure of her performance.Saturday's program opened with a short work by recent Yale graduate Emily Cooley called "Render and Reach," a nicely crafted but very compact set of variations on an angular, catchy theme. Highly rhythmic and terse, it felt more like a study piece than a completed composition, full of nice ideas based on a fine theme for variation, but too abrupt in its treatments.
The second half of the program featured Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 (oddly placing the composer's Opus 36 directly following his Opus 35). This symphony requires a sense of fluid dynamics and vivid orchestral color to succeed, as it has little true development, relying primarily on repeats and sequencing to give it a sense of forward motion. It provided anintriguing contrast to the concerto.
Tchaikovsky was a composer most comfortable on the stage, where his ballets and operas best displayed his melodic and dramatic gifts. In the violin concerto, he has a prima donna, a leading lady in the guise of the violin soloist, who can give voice to his rhythmic and thematic powers. In the symphonies, he must rely on orchestration and very often sheer volume to succeed.
Despite some ragged playing in the horn section in the first movement, Shimada plumbed as varied a range of orchestral colors as you could hope for, and the ECSO's fine principals all had a chance to shine, including flutist Nancy Chaput, oboist Anne Megan, clarinetist Kelli O'Connor and piccolo principal Cheryl Six. The trombones again and again powered the outer movements and in the scherzo, the double basses got to show off in one of the longest and most testing pizzicato expanses for bass.
After the symphony's roof-rattling finale, Shimada returned to lead a soothing encore of aDvorak Slavonic Dance.
New London — The Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra opened its 66th season Saturday night at The Garde Arts Center with a stirring performance of a pair of major works and a performance by a major star.
Audience expectations ran high for piano soloist Peter Frankl, who was in town to perform Brahms’ vast Piano Concerto No. 2 for the 100th time in his illustrious career, and he did not disappoint. At age 77, the Hungarian-born pianist embraced the score like an old friend.
ECSO Music Director Toshi Shimada kept a sure sense of direction and brisk pacing through the 45-minute concerto, the most through-composed and audience pleasing of all Brahms’ major orchestral works, and Frankl seemed to feed off the energy. In the powerful opening allegro, he stamped his foot for emphasis as the rhapsodic central theme grew in his hands, and he all but fell off the bench as he leaned to maintain eye contact with Shimada. This grand movement, alternately solemn, heroic and endearingly warm, grown huge from the three-note opening horn motif first intoned by principal Dana Lord, was pushed forward crisply by Shimada, while Frankl at times chose to linger with tantalizing phrasing.
The concerto’s major horn passages were played subsequently by Coast Guard Band member Brian Nichols, but the orchestra member ordained by Brahms to take the spotlight was cello principal Alvin Wong, as the novel, four-movement concerto seems to begin its andante as a cello concerto. And in this slow movement, the moments of magic were found.
After a scherzo movement that crackled with energy, Wong opened the andante with a soothing richness in its serene theme, which sang in his cello until Frankl entered, the role of the piano not so much to expand the theme, but to comment on it. Here, Frankl was rapt, hunched over his hands with an unhurried, almost meditative approach. On this 100th performance, he gave the sense of a very personal, very deep communion with the score, and it suddenly felt like a moment to treasure.
This testing piano part was not without some awkward moments, and ensemble wavered for the final coda. But Frankl thrilled the Garde audience with a sense of mastery, moments of intimacy and a full-body involvement with a vast musical monument.
The program started with a work by a composer who got to take a bow, an ECSO trend for which we must thank Shimada. The season opened with a sonically scintillating 13-minute piece called “Atlantic Riband” written by Kenneth Fuchs, a professor of composition at the University of Connecticut. This Copland-esque piece, with echoes of “Lincoln Portrait,” took variants of a scrap of a theme through a sound tour of the orchestra, at times blustery and at times haunting, such as when English horn principal Olav van Hezewijk played over tolling tubular bells. The theme variants piled up in a thrilling contrapuntal swirl for a satisfying finale.
The truncated second half of the program featured selections from Berlioz’ epic “Roméo et Juliette,” program music much like his Symphonie fantastique, but not so much a literal narrative as a musical evocation of the play’s themes. And here, Shimada earned his stripes.
Berlioz’ scoring is nothing if not odd — odd voicings, odd entrances and odd approaches to sectional counterpoint. From the weirdly hyperkinetic opening fugue, through the fragile sectional harmonies of the love scene, to the raucous “Great Festival” finale, the chorale of trombones, tuba and brass soaring above a boiling cauldron of sound, Shimada kept the forces focused and allowed the lyricism to flower.
Then, he got to ham it up on the podium, dancing and swaying along to an encore that a generation of Americans first heard in a Bugs Bunny cartoon: Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5. The audience clapped along and left smiling.
Review: ECSO Chorus shines in a grand musical epic
New London - The Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra Music Director Toshi Shimada introduced the final concert of the season at the GardeArtsCenter Saturday night by explaining that its unifying theme was different composers' impressions of the sea.
"For all of us," he said, "It's the common denominator as human beings."
But by concert end, it was clear that it is music, not the sea, that unites us.
Saturday was the annual concert featuring the ECSO Chorus, led by Choral Director Mark Singleton, and the chorus has never sounded better. The chorus and a pair of soloists, baritone David Pershall and soprano Amanda Hall, were featured in Ralph Vaughan Williams' "A Sea Symphony," an epic, 60-minute oratorio drawing verses from Walt Whitman. And the performance was as sweeping, ecstatic and transcendent as Whitman's verse.
This symphony is a vast work in every way, and unlike many oratorios, the chorus is often incorporated as a section of the orchestra, sharing sectional interplay with the winds or brass or strings. Since this orchestra is fully professional, the equanimity with which the amateur chorus shared the spotlight was all the more impressive.
"A Sea Symphony" was the second oratorio based on Whitman verse written by the then-38-year-old Vaughn Williams, and it was an immediate hit at its 1910 debut. The verses were gleaned from various poems in "Leaves of Grass," and the vastness of sea itself becomes a central metaphor for Whitman's delirious vision of the oneness of life.
Opening in full sail, with fanfares and a choral explosion, "Behold the sea itself!," the symphony was anything but bombastic. It has its huge sonic moments, but Shimada drew on its contrasts, like the sea itself, from storm to calm and back. In the opening section, when the female choral voices softly echo "Token of all brave captains" after grand declamations by all, the bar was set high for the musicianship that followed.
The soloists were of fine voice and strong presence. Baritone Pershall's part was that of the navigator, leading the key textual moments with a strong yet unforced clarity. Soprano Hall was given the most transcendent of the musical moments, sweetly summarizing the gently tapering finale with a lyricism to contrast the power.
But the 80-voice chorus itself, augmented appropriately enough with eight voices from the Coast Guard Academy Glee Club, was fully textured. Sections of the score call for powerful unisons (one wag at the time of the works' premier said a good performance should induce a sore throat), yet many passages call for complex counterpoint and part singing. Through it all, except for a few moments of the scherzo, the chorus sang with surety, finesse and musicianship.
Shimada had his work load doubled, with the choral parts added to the large orchestra, which included an array of bass winds and two harps, and you'd think he didn't break a sweat - if he hadn't mopped his brow between several movements.
"A Sea Symphony" was a grand triumph, the finest ECSO choral concert this writer has attended over the years. And it needed to be to outshine the first half's moving performance of Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes.
The suite was crafted from orchestral passages of Britten's 1945 opera "Peter Grimes," a dark and brooding tale set in a small fishing village. Britten was raised on the coast and wrote "my life as a child was colored by the fierce storms that sometimes drove ships on our coast."
The music is both seductive and ominous, and like the sea itself, full of crosscurrents, eddies and swells. Particularly in the second section, "Sunday Morning," with its irregular meters and sonic oddities, Shimada drew committed and powerful performances amid its subtleties.
Prior to the concert, the audience gave a rousing ovation for clarinetist Ruth Ann Heller, a bright presence in the music scene here for decades, who was performing her final concert with the ECSO after 40 years - and five music directors!
But at its end, all kudos went to Choral Director Singleton and the dedication to excellence of his singers.
Congratulations to Cynthia Marcus Smith
(Section Violin II for ECSO)
& her husband Ian Smith & Welcome to the world Amalia Eleanor Smith!
Amalia was born a few weeks early on June 4th and weighed 5 pounds 12 ounces.
New London - The Irish are known for their warmth, charm and informality, so when Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra Music Director Toshi Shimada, a pretty charming guy in his own right, decides to go Irish, he channels those winning traits.
"I am from East Ireland," the Japanese native deadpanned to the audience at the GardeArtsCenter Saturday night, as he led a program he called "quasi-pops," full of St. Patrick's Day tidbits salted among a pair of repertoire staples.
Microphone in hand between works, Shimada was as voluble Saturday as anyone who has kissed the Blarney Stone. After regaling the audience with a story about the time Aaron Copland fell from the podium into his lap, he turned to see that half the orchestra hadn't taken their seats for the next piece. He blurted, "Where's my orchestra! They went home -or to the Irish pub across the street!"
The concert opened with a decidedly Viennese pops favorite, the waltz "Frühlingsstimmen" by Johann Strauss Jr. But the program included several sentimental and up-tempo Irish favorites, such as Percy Grainger's "Irish Tune from County Derry" ("Danny Boy" set for strings and horns), "The Last Rose of Summer," featuring concertmaster Stephan Tieszen in the violin solos, and a delightfully goofy setting of "The Irish Washerwoman," with, of all things, a fugal section. There was also a suite from Max Steiner's score for "Gone with the Wind," which Shimada concluded was sufficiently Irish, thanks to Scarlet O'Hara.
The star of the evening was, appropriately enough, ECSO clarinet principal Kelli O'Connor, one of the most talented and popular members of the orchestra. Her performance of Copland's 1947 Clarinet Concerto was met with sustained and heartfelt applause and "bravas," an appreciation not only of her lovely and lively performance in the concerto, but for her contributions to the ECSO's success in countless concerts.
Seated in deference to her current status not merely as a musician but as a seven-month-pregnant mother-to-be, O'Connor spun both Copland's languid lyricism and the syncopated staccato beautifully. The concerto is split in two parts; the first movement is an unhurried song (think Erik Satie) and the second is a jumpy, Cuban jazz romp, full of jokey intervals. O'Connor was warmly sonorous in the opening, playing with the rich timbre and unhurried phrasing that are her trademarks. During the long cadenza that bridges the two sections, the audience was rapt - nary a program rustled. In the dancing second section, often playing off pianist Laura Hibbard, O'Connor was a musical delight. Alternately playful, bluesy and comic, she rode the rhythmic storm brewing in the string sections to provide the lightning bolts.
When she returned for an encore - a Morton Gould piece for clarinet and bass written, like the concerto, for Benny Goodman - she was joined by her husband, bassist Bob Weirath. Shimada, in his master-of-ceremonies persona, quipped, "That was a family thing - all three of them." The major piece of the evening was Schumann's Symphony No. 1 in B Flat (Spring), written in a burst of inspiration in just a month in the winter of 1841, with its first performance conducted by none other than Felix Mendelssohn. The ECSO's performance crackled with energy (except for a strangely plodding scherzo), especially in the development section of the opening movement, where the wealth of melodic ideas sprouted organically, like spring buds. Flutists Nancy Chaput and Amanda Baker, frequently paired, and clarinetist Jonathan Towne were central voices.
The songlike larghetto transformed magically in the final pages to a trombone chorale, leading directly to the scherzo. Here, Shimada chose a stilted pace, yet the two trios leaped to life within the main theme (perhaps that was the point). And Shimada drove the finale home to a sure and slashing coda.
Article published Feb 13, 2012
Seldom-played Tchaikovsky piece proves highlight of ECSO concert
New London - In a concert headlined "All in the Family," Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra conductor Toshiyuki Shimada teamed up Saturday with wife Eva Virsik in Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2, but the highlight of the evening at the GardeArtsCenter turned out to be a lush rendition of Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony in B Minor.
The Manfred Symphony, rarely performed because it is almost an hour long and requires marathon-like abilities from the conductor, is inspired by a Lord Byron poem about a spiritual quest. Under Shimada's baton, each of the orchestra's sections became a relentless piston of energy driving the colorful piece toward a frightening abyss.
The work featured beautiful solos by French hornist Dana Lord and bass clarinetist Ruth Ann Heller, not to mention bold entrances led by trombonist Terrence Fay and scintillatingly controlled string play with concertmaster Stephan Tieszen at the helm.
The Manfred Symphony, the only of Tchaikovsky's major works not given a symphonic number, deserves a better fate than history has bestowed. While it lacks the sparkling melodies that leaves audiences humming his first piano concerto, Manfred is perhaps the most elegantly experimental of Tchaikovsky's work and, with its rhythmic and dynamic intensity, surely one of the hardest for an orchestra to play.
The ECSO milked every nuance from the score, the percussion and brass sections boldly punching out the warlike first movement, while the strings and woodwinds sparkled in the more carefree second and third movements. Shimada held the thematic elements together with alternately lugubrious and angular phrasing in the dramatic final movement that includes interludes in which an obbligato organ part lends a hymn-like quality to the piece.
The Tchaikovsky symphony proved a contrast to the Chopin piano concerto and its romantic waterfall of notes, played by pianist Virsik with delicate grace. Wearing a striking, full-length red dress with matching heels, Virsik alternated smooth, harp-like runs with edgier, awkward rhythms that she played effortlessly.
Her bravura, understated performance brought the crowd to its feet, and Virsik hugged her husband, put her hand to her heart and received an early Valentine's Day bouquet of flowers as the standing ovation continued for several minutes. She even offered a brief encore just before intermission.
The only other piece of the night, an Oscar-winning movie score from "Out of Africa" by John Barry Prendergast, featured a romantic melody as wide open as the Saharan desert, with octave skips performed seamlessly by the strings.
Article published Jan 22, 2012
Review: The complex is simply transfixing in a world premiere symphony in New London
New London - Some music works just fine through earbuds, and some you must experience. Saturday night, the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra performed two symphonies - one written two centuries ago by a man who's now a household name, the other written last year by a woman from the Ukraine - that confirmed that there's no substitute for being there.
Despite the snowstorm, a large audience showed up at the GardeArtCenter to share one of the most memorable concerts of Music Director Toshi Shimada's tenure here. The audience walked out with the heroic final themes of Beethoven's Fifth ringing in their ears and memories of a terrific young clarinet virtuoso from Yale named Matthew Griffith.
But the star of the evening was seated in the 10th row: composer Svitlana Azarova, whose Symphony "Pure thought transfixed" proved once again the immediacy of music of our time. This compact, 18-minute work draws the listener into its complex sound world as it reveals its simple structure, in which a subdued phrase, harkening back to Romantic roots, blooms from section to section, while a hypnotic, long-sustained single note hovers beneath it, rising and falling in dynamics as it moves through the orchestra.
Of course, it's not really that simple. Shimada held up the gigantic score, huge because Azarova splits orchestra sections into sub-groups: the first and second violins split in four groups each, the violas into three, and so on. "If they're not together," Shimada quipped, "it's OK." The effect Saturday, masterfully presented by the ECSO, is a sonic buzz at times riotous but usually remarkably organic, like forest murmurs.
Before the concert, Azarova spoke of the symphony's "surreal" aspects, and most of those were in the hands of percussionists Connie Coghlan and John Frascarelli, who took the audience on a tour of all the wood blocks, chimes and drums in the kit, often so metrically detached from the tectonics moving the other sections as to be soloists. In one particularly memorable passage, resonant of Bartok, they used bass viol bows on the xylophone and tubular bells to create otherworldly overtones.
By a third of the way into Symphony "Pure thought transfixed," this listener was hooked. Its blending of the static and the ecstatic grew increasingly organic, as its structure pulsed like biorhythms. Shimada and company were masterful in bringing this complex score to life, so much so that Azarova, who was hearing her symphony realized for the first time, said that at the final rehearsal, the symphony burst off the page exactly as she had heard it in her head.
The Garde audience was fortunate to have heard it with her.
In counterpoint to the new symphony, young clarinetist Griffith, the ECSO's 2011 Instrumental Competition Winner, spun an operatic weave of roulades and melody in Weber's short Clarinet Concertino. A sophomore at the Yale School of Music, Griffith beautifully shaped the work's more languorous passages, while dazzling the audience with his seemingly effortless musicality in the showy finale.
As Griffin took his bows, Shimada threw an arm over Griffith's shoulder and beamed like a proud papa, while a contingent of Yalies howled in approval from the balcony.
The concert ended with a fine reading of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, which showcased the cello and bass sections, especially in the second and final movements. This iconic symphony is known for its tension and release and its singular outer movements. But Saturday, Shimada created a warm and textured performance of the repetitive andante that gave each iteration of its two related themes fresh meaning.
And, of course, the triumphant fourth movement is one of the grandest moments in all music, and the ECSO did not disappoint, as it soared to the ether-shattering coda with trombones ablaze and piccolo player Cheryl Six flashing sonic lightning bolts.
What can be better than the old ever fresh and the fresh treated like a classic?
New London – The GardeArtsCenter was packed Saturday night, both onstage and off, as the appreciative audience savored the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra's performance of two staples of the repertoire served up anew, sizzling with fresh life.
Under the baton of Music Director Toshi Shimada, the ECSO concert gave proof that the old works are forever young in the right hands. This second concert of the 2011-12 season was built around two major pieces: Mendelssohn's crowd-pleasing Violin Concerto in E minor and Berlioz' always odd and endlessly entertaining big-orchestra showpiece, his Symphonie Fantastique.
A large measure of the concert's youth was provided by violin soloist Caroline Goulding, a 19-year-old Cleveland native whose lighter-than-air romp through the Mendelssohn mesmerized and energized the large audience.
Fresh off a Grammy nomination and a 2011 Avery Fisher Career Grant and playing a 1720 Stradivarius, Goulding arrived with glowing advance notices. Wearing a blue satiny dress, Goulding was a bit overwrought and unfocused in the concerto's opening exposition, but once she settled in with the ensemble, she drew a knowing musical line through the concerto, with a silvery, luminous tone and brilliant virtuosity that seemed to dance above the technical challenges.
Mendelssohn placed a scored cadenza at the heart of the first movement, and here Goulding was all artistry, as she reached for the high note at the end of each searching phrase with a delicacy that left the sound deliciously hanging in the air. She emerged from the cadenza into the cantabile lyrical theme with a gorgeous tapered phrasing that would carry through the andante. In this slow movement, Goulding drew on sensitive dynamics that rose and fell with a breath-like voice in this song without words, especially lovely in the closing reverie for violin and wind chorale.
Goulding used a light bow and effervescent mood through the perpetual motion of the final movement, cast very much in the elfin lightness of Mendelssohn's early scherzos. As she spun out an airy filigree of roulades and scales, Shimada flashed a broad grin of pure pleasure in her direction. She turned up the volume for a well-focused and strong coda, and the crowd roared in delight–as enthusiastic an ovation as any ECSO soloist has received in recent seasons.
Goulding's talent offers great promise, and at 19, she is still a work in progress. Her stage presence needs some refinement: often bent at the knees and bobbing and weaving like a boxer, she exuded an aggressive tension that contradicted the lyricism and lightness of her playing. But the blend of musicianship with virtuosity displayed Saturday should carry her far.
The program opened with the short, Gershwin knock-off of Franz Waxman's score for "The Philadelphia Story," one of the film scores included in each ECSO program this year, which featured bluesy alto sax solos by Jeff Emerich. And it moved through a terse reading of Brahms' dramatic Tragic Overture before ending with the sonic (and programmatic) drama of the SymphonieFantastique.
This 1830 work all but launched 19th century musical Romanticism. Berlioz mustered a huge musical force, the largest orchestra to date, and abandoned the standard four-movement symphonic form and introduced the concept of a thematic leitmotifto animate his detailed written program of love, longing and nightmares of death and demons. Bizarre in its day, Symphonie Fantastique still delights in its oddity – where else will you hear an isolated quintet of an English horn and four timpanists within a symphony?
Shimada kept this mercurial score, full of unexpected twists, sudden pauses and strangely accented sectional counterpoint, fully focused, especially in the colorful thematic witches' brew of the final pages. The violin sections, called on for prolonged forceful tremolos, frenetic outbursts and col legno bowing (beating strings with the wood of the bow for skeletal effects), rose to the many challenges, as did the cellos and basses, called on to growl and provide strange accents in this sonic bestiary.
The ECSO's wind voices were lovely in the two calm inner movements, including flutist Nancy Chaput, English hornist Olav van Hezewijk and oboist Anne Megan (in her offstage duet to open the pastoral), and clarinetists Kelli O'Conner and Chantal Hovendick. The brass, spiced with a pair of coronet-a-piston, provided the sonic punch in the two dramatic final movements, and tuba players Gary Sienkewicz and Gary Buttery received the first bow from Shimada.
It was a thrilling performance, all the more impressive for the beautiful unfolding of the pastoral movement amidst all the fervor. Just as the concerto was a showpiece for Goulding's artistry, this strange and entrancing symphony gave Shimada and the ECSO a stage for its mastery in its parts and as a whole.
The Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra kicked off its 65th season Saturday night with the music of two composers whose personae often overshadow their output: Franz Liszt, the charismatic superstar pianist of the 19th century, and Gustav Mahler, the solipsistic personification of fin de siècle anxiety.
It was a program of contrasts: the Liszt piano concerto was as concise and sparkling and entertaining as the Mahler was sprawling and grim and enervating.
Shimada spoke just once in the concert at the GardeArtsCenter in New London, offering a quick "Happy birthday, Franz Liszt," before the young Russian pianist Gleb Ivanov commanded the stage on the 200th anniversary of the composer's birth for a both nuanced and showy performance of Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1.
Liszt revolutionized piano technique, and many of his pieces are mere vehicles for virtuosity, but this 1849 concerto offers the orchestra a major role, with the ECSO principal voices rising to sing along with the soloist and the ensemble delicately deft in the light, dancing scherzo. Shimada, as always, stayed keenly aware of his soloist's needs as a partner, not accompanist.
From the showy opening, with Ivanov's huge hands spanning the dramatic octaves with ease, the pianist reveled in the showcase of pianist effect. In the many solo passages, Ivanov was situational in his tempi without stretching too far, especially in his halting presentation of the adagio, seemingly choked-up with emotion. And through all the glittery arpeggios, waves of scales and booming octaves, he avoided the histrionics and head-tossing too common with Liszt performances, as he directly communicated the works' pleasures of musicality.
But what followed was not a pleasant experience: Mahler's 70-minute, grim epic, his Symphony No. 6. Written in 1904, at the same time as Mahler's equally cheery Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the Death of Children"), this gigantic monument to angst and futility is seldom performed. According to the League of American Orchestras, there were 3,665 concerts performed in the 2008-09 season. Mahler's Sixth was performed four times. This is not a winning work of art.
But Saturday's was a major effort by Shimada and company, successful in execution, if not effect.
More than 90 musicians filled the stage, an oversize orchestra with nine French horns and six percussionists — and one unique instrument. Mahler called for a hammer blow to smash down all hopes of a major-key redemption in the A Minor symphony's final movement, and it's up to every orchestra to devise a device to provide the loud, yet dull thud he calls for.
Crafty ECSO members Mark Weaver and Victor Johnson built a sturdy wooden boom box for percussion principal Connie Coghlan to smite with a huge mallet when Mahler's "hammer of fate" falls three times in the 30-minute final movement. (By contrast, the entire four-movement piano concerto was 20 minutes long). Paired with a bass drum stroke, Coghlan's hammer blow was concussive, a palpable blow for the audience.
But by that point, an hour into the epic, the air had largely left the room. There is a grinding sameness to the sonic wall and repetitious motifs Mahler uses to portray fatalism, and the sum of it was deadening.
The symphony opened crisply, with Shimada sharply defining the ominous tramp-tramp-tramp of its dark march. Through the complex scoring, with layers of themes aboil through the sections, the orchestra was impressive in both sweep and detail. Throughout the work, each of the key principals played beautifully in crucial obbligatos: trumpeter Julia Caruk, French hornist Dana Lord, English hornist Olav van Hezewijk, concertmaster Stephan Tieszen, clarinetist Kelli O'Connor, bassoonist Tracy McGinnis and flutist Nancy Chaput. The ECSO should be proud of the dedication and musicianship all 90 muicians displayed.
But this was a long march through a cheerless, seemingly endless score designed to dismay. The second movement scherzo (designated by Mahler to be "wuchtig" — massive) was both mad and maddening, and the sheer weight of the symphony's scoring, interrupted only briefly by some lovely chorales with bass winds and horns, was dark and oppressive.
The audience reaction was subdued, a mix of confusion and impatience. For the musicians, to perform such a huge and unusual concert piece was a challenge and a triumph. But for the audience, the challenge was far different.
Article published Oct 22, 2011
With Hammerschlag at the ready, ECSO presents Mahler's Symphony No. 6
Question: if you built the Hammer of Fate - an object certainly rivaling the Trojan Horse and the Sword of Excalibur in the Great Tool Chest of the Ages- what, exactly, would you use it for?
Well, if you're the principal percussionist with a symphony orchestra, and your next gig happens to be Mahler's Symphony No. 6, you're required to supply your own "Hammerschlag" - the hammer blow of fate - which is what the composer called a very specific sound he requires in the third movement. If that sounds heavy, you should know the No. 6 is known as the "Tragic Symphony" for its climatic themes of human suffering. The thing is, Mahler didn't specify what instrument the musician should play to provide the Hammershlag. Instead, the composer left it up to each respective orchestra's percussionist to invent and supply the Hammerschlag based on Mahler's verbatim instructions in the score: "a short, powerful, but dully echoing stroke of unmetallic character." Hmm. Thanks a lot for the help, Gustav. But no worries for Connie Coghlan, Mark Weaver and Vic Johnson, all musicians in the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, which will perform the No. 6 tonight as part of the outfit's premiere concert for the 2011-12 season. The production, under the baton of ECSO conductor/musical director Toshiyuki Shimada, takes place in New London's GardeArtCenter. Also on the program is Korngold's Kings Row and Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 featuring pianist Gleb Ivanov. But it will be Coghlan, the ECSO's principal percussionist, who will dramatically slam the Hammer of Fate into a custom-built box worthy of being hit by, ah, a Hammer Of Fate.
This is not something Coghlan could have pulled off without trombonists Weaver and Johnson. Despite her significantly splendid resume and reputation as an all-world percussionist, Coghlan is a tiny thing, and the idea of anyone at all wielding a Hammer of Fate is intimidating - not to mention having to invent the utensil itself and its accompanying Fate Box. "I wasn't worried, though," Coughlin says. "I had a plan."
Weaver is also an expert woodworker and a museum quality expert on the arts and crafts movement. Coughlin says, "I figured if anyone could build a box and hammer that would make the noise Mahler wanted, it would be Mark. And I knew that if I offered dinner and beer, I'd get him."
Sold. Weaver then called Johnson, another handy-with-tools guy, and the two set out to do proper research in dusty Mahler archives and then come up with a functional blueprint. Of particular help was a hammer box design by Chicago Symphony bassist Roger Cline that involves such things as audio speaker technology with designer wood and plumbing parts. It was a fun but intense effort, Weaver and Johnson say - a sort of scenario that was part "Da Vinci Code" and part "Home Improvement." And another Gustav - furniture making visionary Gustav Stickley - would have been delighted with their box. As for the hammer itself, Weaver used old-fashioned hand tools and crafted the piece by candlelight during the protracted power outage after Tropical Storm Irene. The primitive circumstances were perhaps appropriate in the pagan context of Mahler's piece and, when Coghlan actually strikes it for the first time in Weaver's garage - forcefully arcing the substantial mallet overhead like a medieval executioner - the box thunders mightily in finest Great God Pan fashion. Coghlan admits to being a bit nervous that so much dramatic spotlight tonight relies on her nailing the Hammershlag - no pun intended. "I'll have to be watching and anticipating where the hammer's going to land, and I'll have one eye on the conductor. Plus, I have to anticipate how much time it's going to take to swing the hammer through the air."
She smiles. "That's what practice is for, I guess."
Putting their best toe forward at the Garde Published 10/21/2011 12:00 AM Updated 10/21/2011 01:11 AM
Sean D. Elliot/The Day
Dancers from the Eastern Connecticut Ballet perform an interpretive dance Thursday as the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra presents Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" for elementary school students from around the region at the GardeArtsCenter in New London. Go online at theday.com to see a video and a photo gallery of the event.
Russian pianist Gleb Ivanov will perform
Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1.
The Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra opens its 65th season Saturday with a concert built around high drama - from the sizzle of the golden age of Hollywood to the harrowing emotions of a massive Mahler symphony. The lights come up on the Garde stage with the first of Music Director Toshi Shimada's year-long tributes to Hollywood, a concert suite from Erich Korngold's score to "Kings Row." Ever wonder where John Williams got his inspiration? Just listen. Then comes more drama with Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1, featuring soloist Gleb Ivanov. The young Moscow native has won numerous awards in both Russia and the U.S., and there's no performance tradition more directly tapped in to the Liszt aesthetic of virtuosity and showmanship than the Russians'. The hammer falls (quite literally) to end the concert with Mahler's hour-plus epic Symphony No. 6, his harrowing, march-driven extravanganza for a huge orchestra. This exploration of personal tragedy from that most solipsistic of composers features a unique instrument, a sort of drum struck by "the hammer of fate," signifying bad stuff happening in Mahler's life. ECSO principals banded together to build the instrument, in an act of devotion to both the orchestra and to the score.
The ECSO and Shimada are clearly thinking big to kick off the concert season. Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, with guest soloist Gleb Ivanov, 8 p.m. Saturday, Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London; $30-$54 with senior, student, and military discounts, $12 student rush tickets Saturday night; (860) 443-2876, gardearts.org.
Pop in the earbuds, stride out the door, and suddenly your life feels like a movie. Simply adding a soundtrack changes your sense of reality, and you step into cinema.
Music and film have been intertwined from the start. Silent movies were never really silent; there was always a piano, an organ or even a small orchestra adding a sonic storyline.
This season, New London's big orchestra - the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra - is going Hollywood, with a film score extract in every concert. It's Music Director Toshi Shimada's third season of programming, and in a departure from his habit of including a new work in every concert, he's turning to the movies.
Music as soundtrack predates electricity and projectors. In the 18th and 19th centuries, almost every composer got his biggest payday from writing operas; then in 1908, the most renowned French composer of his day, Camille Saint-Saëns, wrote an 18-minute film score, and the floodgates opened. Offering a guaranteed paycheck and audience, the big screen lured a Who's Who of 20th century composers, a list that includes Dmitri Shostakovich, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Benjamin Britten, Sergei Prokofiev, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Philip Glass. And cinema has spawned its own cross-over stars, like John Williams, certainly the best-known contemporary composer in America.
In the converted movie theater it calls home, the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra is going to feature some of Hollywood's best-known scores and some lesser performed ones.
The scores of Erich Korngold, the musical godfather of John Williams, are perhaps the most idiomatic big screen devices, and Shimada is featuring suites from two: "The Sea Hawk" (his most popular) and "Kings Row" (play one for The Gipper). He has programmed two by Franz Waxman, "The Philadelphia Story" and "Rebecca;" two excerpts from "Gone with the Wind," by Max Steiner; and John Barry's "Out of Africa."
Now remember, these will be orchestral concerts, not screenings of "Rocky Horror Picture Show," so it would probably be inappropriate if audience members brandish turnips and shout "I'll never be hungry again" on cue during the "Gone with the Wind" score.
It's not an odd fit. Many film scores have made the leap to the concert hall through transcription and succeed fully, such as Leonard Bernstein's "On the Waterfront;" Vaugh Williams' "Scott of the Antarctic," transformed into his "Sinfonia Antartica," complete with wind machine; and Copland's "The Red Pony."
The six-concert ECSO season also includes some of the most standard of standards, such as Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto and Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique. There will be a pair of clarinet showpieces: Weber's Clarinet Concertino, featuring ECSO 2011 Instrumental Competition Winner Matthew Griffith, and Copland's Clarinet Concerto (written for Benny Goodman), featuring the very talented ECSO principal Kelli O'Connor.
Though Shimada has broken from his practice of including a new work in just about every program, he has programmed a small symphony for large orchestra written just last year by a 25-year-old: "Pure thoughts transfixed" by the Ukrainian/Dutch composer Svitlana Azarova. The traditional season-ending concert featuring the ECSO Chorus will have a theme all its own, to set the stage, no doubt, for the July OpSail tall ships parade in New London. The concert will include Korngold's "Sea Hawk," Britten's "Four Sea Interludes," and Vaughn Williams' choral "A Sea Symphony," with its text drawn from Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass."
Like his earlier concert programs, the schedule Shimada has crafted is both quite different and very familiar. Hearts should melt during the achingly beautiful slow movement of the Chopin concerto in February; spirits should soar in the thrilling finale to Beethoven's Fifth; and everyone should be tempted to talk like a pirate after "The Sea Hawk."
The Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, the ECSO Chorus and orchestra music director Toshi Shimada took on their biggest challenge to date Saturday night when they massed to perform Mahler’s gigantic Symphony No. 2, the “Resurrection Symphony.” This 90-minute epic required such a huge musical force — eight horns, five clarinets, six trumpets, two harps and a small army of timpanists and percussionists, augmented strings, the 75-voice chorus and two vocal soloists — that the 150-plus couldn’t fit on the stage at the Garde Arts Center in New London. A 10-foot extension was added to reach out into the hall. The extension was serendipitous, since placing the orchestra in the open hall gave it an acoustic vibrancy and brilliance muffled in its usual seating, a crucial plus for a symphony that succeeds more on sonic shock and awe than on musical content. To present the Resurrection Symphony was a bold move by Shimada, not just because of the scale and complexity of the piece, but because it necessitated programming just a single work for the concert — and a work by a polarizing composer, at that. Any attendance fall-off was tempered by the presence of the chorus — 75 community members with friends and family in attendance. Mahler’s music inspires extremes of adoration or revulsion, so I must pause here to warn fervent Mahler-ites (redundant, I know). The late New York Times lead music critic Harold Schonberg once wrote: “The worship of Mahler amounts to a religion. Any music critic will attest that a response of anything except rapture to the Mahler symphonies will bring long letters of furious denunciation.” Get out your pens ... First, ample praise where praise is due: The larger the orchestra, the more difficult the issues of ensemble and intonation, and the ECSO worked very hard on this marathon performance, and it showed, both as a sum and in its parts. Principals such as trumpeter Julia Caruk, French hornist Dana Lord, English hornist Olav van Hezewijk, oboist Anne Megan and flutist Nancy Chaput, and the sectional play, especially the low brass and low strings, did justice to the complexities and nuances of the score. This is a work capable of moments of utter beauty and of hair-raising crescendos powered by boiling tympanis and brassy blaze-ups, and the orchestra did not miss in those opportunities. The chorus, led by director Mark Singleton, was in fine voice, from its hushed a cappella entrance to the exultant finale in full voice over the seething orchestra, the sopranos handling the high tessitura with aplomb. The vocal soloists, mezzo Janna Batys and soprano Sharla Nafziger, were good fits for their roles. The best moments came in the devil’s dance of the third movement, as Shimada kept the swirl of 16th notes animated as the grotesque tune played out across an array of voices, and in the tender fourth movement song by Batys against a beautifully tempered chorale of winds and brass. It is no coincidence that these were the shortest of the five movements, for the huge outer movements were damned by excess. And now, the Mahler problem: The repetitions of the first movement seemed endless, and the first 20 minutes of the last movement stop and start and stop and start, animating a detailed script by Mahler (“The earth quakes, the graves burst open, the dead rise” … and so on) that needs cinema to succeed without seeming simply incoherent. Like his peer Bruckner, Mahler tended to confuse size with grandeur, once writing that a symphony must contain “the whole world,” leaving non-believers to wonder if the true artist couldn’t provide just a bit more focus. (The 90-minute Second Symphony is, amazingly enough, not the longest one Mahler wrote.) Mahler’s obsession with writing funeral marches also represents the death throes of Romanticism, and to many of us, Mahler is the repackaged megalomania and gigantisms of Wagner, minus Wagner’s endless melody and flavored with a neurotic obsessive hysteria all Mahler’s own. But these unfocused ruminations on Schubert and Wagner can make for thrilling live performances. He spent his lifetime conducting orchestras (including the New York Philharmonic) and was expert at scoring for musical effect. Shimada kept the sprawling orchestra focused, evincing both power and beauty in its moments. The churning contrapuntal engine of the cellos and bass viols powered the first and third movements with an irresistible pulse, and the acoustics of the extended stage gave a brilliance and warmth to the obbligatos, particularly by concertmaster Stephan Tieszen and English hornist van Hezewijk, making one yearn for this seating in all performances. But by the time the grand and gorgeous final hymn rose to resurrection, the chorus soaring and bells chiming, it was too late. One sensed the audience was more enervated than thrilled by a work too long, too repetitive and too retrospective. I walked out of the hall humming the main themes from that final movement, but by the time I got to the car, the music in my head had morphed into themes from “Die Walkure.”
New London - A good chef can look at a cupboard full of ingredients and know how to blend them into a savory meal. Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra Music Director Toshi Shimada took his five musical dishes Saturday and arranged them expertly on stage at the GardeArtsCenter to serve up a musical feast.
The music performed spanned the known world of orchestral fare, from early 1720s Bach to a work by Yale grad student Loren Loiacono, born in 1989 (that is not a typo). It ranged from Bach's well-tempered counterpoint to the modal musings of Benjamin Britten, from Mendelssohn's orderly thematic narrative to Debussy's shimmering impressionism. And it featured ECSO Principal Violist Barbara Wiggin in that Britten work, "Lachrymae," with an introspective and searching exploration of a score as fragile and spare as Loiacono's was raucous and extroverted.
Even the orchestra on stage accentuated the contrasts and similarities. The concert opened with a 30-piece ensemble for Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3, then shrank to an even smaller string orchestra for the Britten before ballooning to 80 pieces for the Loiacono and Debussy.
As a chef might say, presentation is everything. And Shimada's choice of sequences illuminated the similarities between the oldest and the newest, drawing the line from then to now unerringly.
The program opened with the grand and celebratory Bach suite, the stage set (for the first time under Shimada) with the first and second violins split on either side of the stage to accentuate the counterpoint. The four spirited dance movements sparkled with phrases from three trumpeters, lit up by Principal Julia Caruk on the brilliant piccolo trumpet, and the two bass viols carried the suite ever forward. The second movement, know today in its "Air of the G String" setting, is one of the world's best-known melodies, and Shimada laid down his baton to caress its gentle pulse with both hands.
The performance of Britten's hushed 1975 setting of "Lachrymae" that followed was spell-binding. A set of variations on a song by English Renaissance composer John Dowland, the work is one of musings - Britten called them "reflections" not "variations." Wiggin traversed its introspective passages with an unhurried surety of tone and direction, whether in the rich legato, the dusty dry sul ponticello sections or in big, warm stops.
Shimada's shaping of the ensemble was equally effective, the strings often sighing softly in breath-like response. The final pages, as Wiggin's musical sorrow turned to a staccato outburst of anger before finally quoting the Dowland tune for the first time, were powerfully theatrical and moving.
Then came the leap to Loiacono's sonic showpiece "Pas de Deux," first performed in 2009, with Shimada conducting. A short work that traverses order and chaos, it opened with a staccato, irregular theme that became a passacaglia, that stately, well-mannered Baroque form that Bach knew so well. As the basses, then the tuba, carried the treading passacaglia forward, the arc from the Baroque master to the young woman who took her bows after the finale seemed shorter than nearly three centuries. "Pas de Deux" delighted the audience with its energy and shape-shifting orchestration, further demonstrating not just the wealth of musical talent currently creating new works, but Shimada's ability to pick the right scores to demystify new music for the Garde audiences.
The second half opened with Mendelssohn's overture "The Hebrides," its depiction of swelling seas vivid and the phrasing well-drawn, from the stormy interludes to the final diminuendo.
The concert ended with a magnetic performance of Debussy's best-loved work, "La mer." This 1905 three-movement reaction to imagery of the sea in musical impressionism has few of the structures of theme and development found in most major works; thoughts of the sea clearly moved Debussy to a dreamlike state. It is a work that relies not so much on a sense of harmonic architecture as on shifting sonorities, each glittery or placid moment providing glimpse of the sublime, much like the sea itself.
This is fragile stuff, very much a conductor's showpiece, and Shimada was masterful. Key voicings by principals such as flutist Nancy Chaput, oboist Anne Megan and English horn player Olav van Hezewijk, conveyed the beauty of the mercurial score, but none was more essential than trumpeter Caruk, often playing with a mute with an atmospheric and hauntingly spatial effect. Shimada kept this complex score coherent with a sharp focus (for such soft-focus imagery) to its rousing finale.
Before the first note, Tokyo native Shimada took a moment to dedicate the concert to the victims of the earthquake in Japan.
New London - By any measure, Saturday's Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra concert was designed to be a big event. It opened with a graceful, yet powerful new work, the young composer present in the hall to take her bows and mingle with the audience. Then the concert moved to the oversize emotional heft of two late Romantic composers who stand worlds apart, their contrasting strengths vividly drawn by Music Director Toshi Shimada.
The concert at the GardeArtsCenter opened with "Dessin No. 1," by 23-year-old Kathryn Salfelder, a grad student at the Yale School of Music, where Shimada is a professor. This 2009 piece, already performed by the New England Philharmonic and the Minnesota Orchestra, opened with a meditative pulse in hushed strings, with concertmaster Stephan Tieszen playing a spare, haunting line that returns to sing again and again in various guises.
The work, much in the character of the Eastern European minimalists with the open-air textures of Copland, grew through a series of crescendos without losing its sense of calm and long- arched structure. A simple three-note figure turned elemental and grand, before the work faded away in a glowing pastoral. "Dessin No. 1" is the sort of appealing new music Shimada is stressing in his tenure here, made all the more appealing by the young composer's presence.
But the clear star of the evening was 24-year-old violinist AnnaJihyunPark, soloist in Elgar's Violin Concerto, perhaps the least-performed of all the great violin concertos. Her performance - and the Elgar itself - was set in high contrast against the program's final work, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, the Pathétique. Here were two long (both about 45 minutes) deeply emotional works, written less than 20 years apart, by the grandest, if not the greatest, British composer and that most iconic of all the Russians.
The contrasts of the works' emotional content - Elgar's stoicism in the face of longing and Tchaikovsky's moaning collapse - and their structures - Elgar's complex weave of motifs and Tchaikovsky's parade of melodies - were a compelling theme to the program, especially as Shimada found the heart of each to express.
That violinistPark, the winner of last year's ECSO Instrumental Competition, selected the Elgar to perform was remarkable for a young artist. The concerto lacks the sort of show-stopping cadenzas that allow the performer to toss her hair and ham it up (the first two movements have no have no cadenzas); it calls for almost non-stop playing by the soloist … a heroic effort to match the nobility of Elgar's themes. From the opening phrase, her approach was big and warm, harking back to the violinist for whom the work was written, Fritz Kreisler.
This autobiographical concerto (about love and longing for the woman Elgar called "Windflower," its dedication reads "Herein is enshrined the soul of …..") has almost all of its thematic material presented in an opening orchestral exposition, and the violinist follows in almost nonstop dialogue with the orchestra. Shimada kept the energy high throughout, and Park continually carried it forward, whether in the swooning songlike "Windflower" themes, or in the contrapuntal sparring with the robust orchestral forces. Both soloist and conductor made the complex seem inevitable and natural.
The Elgar relies often on key moments from the brass and horns, and both sections stood out; it was the finest evening for the horn section in memory, casting nostalgic echoes in perfect balance with the soloist and strings.
Aside from a few measures lost and wandering in the woods in the final movement, Park was commanding and gorgeous in her big, warm tone. Whether cascading arpeggios to race the orchestra to the finish in the first movement, or employing a rich, broad vibrato in the eloquent love music of the slow movement, or standing feet apart and hunched like a boxer in her purple strapless dress to attack the buzz-saw stops in the final movement, she carried the evening. In the concerto's magical scored cadenza, when all stops but for tremolos and soft strumming in some strings while, as Elgar put it, the violin "sadly thinks over the first movement," her phrasing was achingly beautiful … a feat much like looking great at the end of a marathon.
Shimada kept this remarkably complex score direct and coherent, aside from that brief disconnection in the final movement. The Tchaikovsky presented a wholly separate set of challenges. A work full of well-known themes, it begins in gloom and ends in the tomb. It's hard to understand how the same composer who can be so graceful and debonair in the second movement and so proud and energetic in the third suddenly sobs and expires in the finale. But Shimada made it work.
This was Tchaikovsky, so it was all about the tunes. Its directness was striking in the wake of the Elgar. The first movement stops and starts as themes come and go, but the moments themselves (and Tchaikovsky is all about savoring the moments) were wonderful: clarinetist Kelli O'Connor flowing like liquid gold in the lyrical theme, the sonic boom of the heart of the development.
The inner movements are among Tchaikovsky's finest. The "waltz" movement was graceful and lilting - the first waltz movement here that didn't move Shimada to dance on the podium, because of its 5/4 meter, no doubt. And the rousing march movement showed the orchestra at its best. Shimada at times dropped his hands and simply listened as the rousing fare stepped out briskly, ending with lightning flashes in the flutes and piccolo. The audience burst into spontaneous applause.
It's always been the final movement that sets the Pathétique apart. Because the composer died just weeks after its premiere, in a likely suicide, the autobiographical content is grim. But Shimada did a marvelous job of retaining the mystery and suspense that the symphony's first audience must have felt.
At first, the dark opening adagio sounds as if it must be an introduction, to swept away by the sort of forceful fare we heard in the march … but, no. Shimada maintained a sense of newness and the unexpected until the funereal trombone chorale emerges from a frenetic crescendo to sweep away all doubt … and hope.It was a remarkable emotional evening at the Garde, the sort of audience experience that relies entirely on virtuosity and the expressiveness it allows.
The Eastern Connecticut Symphony Chorus performs its holiday concert
Published 12/16/2010 12:00 AM Updated 12/16/2010 02:02 AM
The Eastern Connecticut Symphony Chorus - the only remaining symphony chorus in the state - does its annual Holiday Concert. The 80 singers will perform selections from Handel's Messiah, choral works by Morten Lauridsen, two compositions by ECSC conductor Mark Singleton, and other seasonal pieces.Always a popular part of this annual concert is the carol sing-along, where audience members join in with the ECSC.The chorus will be conducted by Mark Singleton, and they'll be accompanied by Joan Cook and an ensemble from the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra.The Saturday performance will be held at ConnecticutCollege's Harkness Chapel, and concert-goers are encouraged to bring a new, unwrapped toy for Toys for Tots. - Kristina Dorsey
Something needs to be said about the programming decisions of Music Director Toshiyuki Shimada.They're magical.
Saturday's performance of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra was just the latest in a series of astonishing programs in which Shimada has combined what, on their face, would seem to be disparate, even incompatible, pieces of music into a perfect whole.
It began with a breathtaking performance of "Ritual," a 7-minute composition by that spikey, forbidding composer, Alfred Schnittke, written to commemorate the victims of World War II.
This reviewer, familiar with the piece from recordings, never felt it a particularly compelling work, but in the hands of Shimada and the ECSO it was a shockingly beautiful slow-motion explosion that ended in a silence dotted with bells so delicate that one could hear the train whistle down near the river.
Percussionist Connie Coghlan had the audience hanging on each note of the bells at the end, and the piece wowed, greeted at its conclusion with laughter and shouted bravos.
The segue, to a piece called "Gema Jawa" by Nancy Van de Vate, a work that is all long lines on the pentatonic scale and as different from the Schnittke as one could imagine, worked gorgeously.
And it seemed the perfect prelude to what was to come: the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor.
The star of the evening was visiting soloist Mikhail Ovrutsky, a young Russian prodigy whose dress and manner are reminiscent of a young Nigel Kennedy and who tore through an electrifying rendition of the work.
This is not a concerto for the faint of heart. Sibelius was a violin virtuoso himself, and this, his only concerto, puts the soloist to the test. Ovrutsky was undaunted.
The first movement of this work is remarkable in how it isolates the soloist, having him play alone for long stretches as the orchestra sits silent, particularly in an extended cadenza that develops the opening theme and requires the soloist to take his instrument to the very end of its voice and then stand, swaying, listening, as the orchestra paints in the winter darkness behind him.
The second movement found Ovrutsky easily navigating the simultaneous cross-rhythms and double-stops of its middle section in a melody all shadows of the northern forests.
As for the third, it was a tour de force, with Ovrutsky holding his own against the orchestra's "polonaise for polar bears" (the, unfortunately, unforgettable characterization of the theme by the critic Donald Francis Tovey). And, not surprisingly, its climax brought the audience to its feet.
It was hard to imagine how the second half of the program could be anything but anticlimactic, but the ECSO's taut, muscular delivery of Dvorák's Symphony No. 8 in G Major was revelatory, taking a work that one critic has described as "a meal of clear soup," and making an exuberant dance of it.
The spot-on ensemble in the mad dash of the first movement, the astonishing purity of the woodwinds, and in particular of Nancy Chaput on flute, in the second, so evocative of birds singing across a meadow, and the big roaring finish by the brass in the fourth, kept listeners on the edge of their seats until the very end.
It was hard to believe, given the electricity this conductor and orchestra are generating, that there were some empty seats in the house. Surely, people don't know what they're missing.
Article published Oct 25, 2010
Toshi Shimada, working his magic, makes the old new at
New London - Saturday's Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra concert at the Garde Arts Center looked to be the most conventional yet under the baton of Music Director Toshi Shimada, an evening of greatest hits by Mozart and Brahms, both safe and predictable.
Yet Shimada worked his magic - a flair that audiences here are beginning to expect - by going small and intimate with a chamber music scale reading of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, then countering by scrubbing the hazy patina of reverence from Brahms Symphony No. 1 with a powerful, at times fierce, performance that made the old and familiar startlingly fresh and arresting.
Nowhere was the intensity of the Brahms experience more evident than in the least expected spot. During the nearly three-minute span of hushed ambiguity in the final movement's long introduction, it seemed the entire audience held its breath. Not so much as a cough or rustling program could be heard in the hall, as Shimada and this fine orchestra held the large audience rapt.
The program, the second of the season, opened with a 2000 composition by Yale graduate Christopher Theofanidis called "Rainbow Body." Shimada introduced the piece by calling it "the most popular 21st century piece right now." Then he added, "If you are worried about this piece - don't."
Based on a medieval "Ave Maria" chant by Hildegard of Bingen, the piece was a sonic showpiece, opening with lightning flash leap from bass clarinet to piccolo before tickling the ears with remarkable growling buzzes from muted trombones and quick crescendos powered by five percussionists. Beneath it all were seemingly endless pedal notes - the wind section demonstrating circular breathing at its best - creating the sense of stasis you associate with chant. From the stasis, a rhythmic pulse coalesced, and the orchestra marched to an exultant, cinematic finale, timpani aboil.
For the Mozart A Major Piano Concerto, K. 488, Shimada pared down the orchestra to a classical-sized 40 pieces, joined by soloist Robert Blocker.
But oddly enough, Blocker ignored any sense of historically informed performance, avoiding the current trends of recapturing 18th century practices. He did not play through the orchestral introduction, as Mozart did, and he in no way embellished the repeats when long melodic sections returned, particularly obvious in the gorgeous adagio, when he took the repeats mechanically, with neither ornamentation nor increasingly expressive phrasing. It was an almost willfully dry and cold-hearted reading of one of Mozart's warmest compositions.
Yet the concerto as a whole was a lovely experience, with Blocker simply the 41st player. Ensemble was tight as the first movement stepped out brightly, and through the adagio, the interplay of winds with piano wove the intimacy of a chamber group. Mozart's almost profligate outpouring of melodies through the rondo finale poured out with nonstop delight.
To end the concert, Shimada transformed the Brahms museum piece into a dramatic narrative that felt wholly new and fresh. Brahms spent nearly 20 years agonizing over this first symphony, and he packed it with so many compositional twists and subtexts that it is often performed as a dry academic exercise that feels self-conscious and directionless.But Saturday, Shimada knew exactly where he was taking it. At the opening beat, as the timpani tolled ominously, the conductor leapt from his feet, and the introduction swelled with an impressive gravitas. The outer movements fairly crackled with energy, the big moments landing like body punches. Near the end of the first movement, when the running triplets compress into a sequence of powerful two-note phrases, Shimada punched the air with a clenched fist - pow, pow, pow - to press his point.
All of the thematic seeds expressed in the introduction were given a most musical voice, making the symphony's cyclical structures clear. Yet this was not a fussy dissection; the blazing crescendos were hair-raising.
The second movement andante sang beautifully, with oboe principal Anne Megan and concertmaster Stephan Tieszen spotlighted in obbligatos.
The final movement unfolded with a keen sense of direction, from the long introduction to horn principal Dana Lord's forceful alpine theme to the trombone chorale that followed. From the majestic song theme, so evocative of Beethoven's choral symphony, the movement powered to its coda, the sections playing with seeming abandon, yet sharp in the compressed and technical contrapuntal passages.
Through the complex compositional stew and the intense brassy blaze-ups, the pure musicality was never lost, and one felt that Shimada and his talented crew had revealed this symphony to us as never before.
Article published Sep 27, 2010
Past and present come alive at Eastern Connecticut
New London - What better way to end a balmy, outdoorsy Saturday than with Beethoven's pastoral landscape in sound? What better motto for the turmoil of the coming elections than Lincoln's words: "We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country"?
The timeliness of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra's season-opening selections served proof of good music's enduring immediacy.
ECSO Music Director Toshi Shimada led the orchestra and a pair of solo performers at the GardeArtsCenter through an entertaining and at times riveting performance that spanned 200 years and three continents' worth of expression. And it all worked, both in its parts and as a whole.
Shimada, oddly enough, did not address his audience Saturday, but he was at his most animated as he led this musical journey. The evening began with a spirited and sharp reading of Suppé's "Poet and Peasant" Overture, before letting the audience settle back to enjoy an unhurried and affectionate performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, his "Pastorale Symphony." It's an unusual concert that moves a Beethoven symphony out of the finale, but Shimada proved he knew what he was doing.
The second half began with the sonic and visual excitement of soloist Naoko Takada swooping over a huge, five-octave marimba in Keiko Abe's 1995 Prism Rhapsody. Then Shimada trumped Beethoven by ending with a powerful reading of Copland's 1942 "Lincoln Portrait" that traveled from the achingly poignant austerity of its melancholic opening - with the muted trumpet of principal Julia Caruk seemingly echoing across a wind-swept plain - to its heroic conclusion, its small three-note motif grown huge to frame Lincoln's words, vividly narrated by my colleague at The Day, Chuck Potter.
Shimada drew the Copland in high relief, from the spare first measures that the composer described as evoking mystery and fatality, through the rough-hewn Stephen Foster dances, to the powerful juxtaposition of Lincoln's words against the portentous crescendos that animated them with grandeur. Potter's resonant bass voice rang through the hall, and he deftly changed his timbre just enough to differentiate between the narration and Lincoln's own words. Shimada used his left hand to cue the narrator, and text and music meshed smoothly even when Potter had to pause for a musical phrase. The effect was theatrical, musical and stirring.
The evening's other soloist, Takada on the marimba, delighted the audience with sounds seldom heard in orchestral settings. Abe's Prism Rhapsody is full of wide, at times explosive, dynamics, yet Takada glided over it all, at times evoking murmuring tremolos and at times a powerful percussive ostinato. A small woman, she took nearly four steps to move the length of the concert marimba, as she hovered over the keys in perpetual motion with two or three mallets in each hand. In mid-piece, as she flew across the instrument, a hairpiece she wore came unpinned and flew off her, an unscripted bit of visual drama amid all the hubbub.
When he came out to lead the Copland, Shimada took a bow, turned to face the orchestra - and reached up with both hands to check that his hair was in place. As the audience roared, he said, "It's mine!" Both the Abe and the Copland were propelled by the percussion and brass sections. But the Beethoven was longest work on the program, showcasing the core string and wind sections. This simplest utterance of Beethoven's output, once described as starting with bliss and then expanding upon it, is full of hidden complexities. But the sectional play was strong, especially in the cellos and winds, and hanging on the soft cadences that each seemed to renew the luxurious sense of reverie, Shimada kept time at bay. The music flowed like the burbling brook portrayed in the second movement, where bassoonist Rebecca Noreen's rich voice merged with the cellos in a long arch like an endless summer day.
Article published May 18, 2010
Peers name Winters Music Educator of the Year
Waterford - The Connecticut Music Educators have awarded Joan Winters the Middle School Music Educator of the Year Award.
Winters, the orchestra director in Waterford at ClarkLaneMiddle School and WaterfordHigh School, received the award at a special ceremony in Hartford during the recent CMEA annual in-service conference. The award culminates her contributions to orchestra music education in Connecticut over the last 25 years.
In March 2010, she directed the CMEA Southern Region Middle School Music Festival Orchestra, and in 2008 was one of only six educators nationwide to be awarded the Heifetz International Music Institute Pedagogy Fellowship.
Winters currently serves on the board of the American String Teachers Association, and is also the musical director and conductor of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Youth Orchestra in Waterford. She resides in East Lyme with her husband Shane and children Chris and Jessica.
The transformation of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra under new Music Director Toshi Shimada couldn't be more dramatic. Or perhaps we should say, less dramatic.
Drama is not Shimada's forte. Under his leadership, the ECSO concerts go as they should. When you are playing the music of Mozart or Ravel or Copland, it should go very well - and it has.
The six-concert season that ended this month seemed an encore to Shimada's stellar try-out concert in 2008 during the music director play-offs that saw five finalists compete for the position. As in that first concert, Shimada's hallmarks have been a fine sensitivity to the details of a score without sacrificing its overall sweep, an ability to draw out the virtuosity of the orchestra's talented principals and a canny survival guide for The Garde Arts Center's acoustic desert.
The YaleUniversity professor, with a track record of leading orchestras this size, replaced Xiao-Lu Li, who had led the orchestra for nine seasons. Most conductor/orchestra marriages go through a seven-year itch, and nine seasons is a long haul. The time was ripe for a growth spurt, though improvement isn't always a given.
But the quality of this orchestra this season was at times startling. We had all heard the violin section improve during Li's tenure, but the suddenness of the transformation of the whole under Shimada couldn't have been imagined. In December, I returned from a couple orchestra concerts in New York, including the New York Philharmonic, to hear the ECSO play Haydn's "London" Symphony and was shocked by how fine it was in comparison. More remarkably, I heard Peter Serkin perform the same Brahms piano concerto in Carnegie Hall that he performed here with Shimada; without a doubt, the performance here was better. How can this orchestra change so quickly?
One obvious difference in the ECSO under Shimada and Li is the conductors' approaches to the Garde's arid acoustic. Li's solution was to turn up the volume. His range of dynamics seemed to begin somewhere around mezzo forte and rise from there, and anyone not accustomed to his conducting might have thought he had some odd palsy in his left hand, which constantly twitched toward the violin section to urge them to be louder and louder still.
Shimada uses the acoustic to his advantage. The lack of rich low tones and warmth in the hall tends to highlight the orchestra's brighter voices in the winds and brass section. Shimada has used this to paint a striking clarity in the orchestra's sonic presence. Sectional play by the strings does not bury the brighter voices, and Shimada uses this transparency wisely. Much of this can be attributed to his acumen at the podium, but much is the wisdom of his programming.
Li's taste in musical fare pretty much went from the early Romatics to late Romantics, with all the Romantics in between (who can forget his Rachmaninoff- Rachmaninoff-Tchaikovsky concert?). This musical era of massed strings and big gestures fit his search for sonic heft, and the audience learned the equation: volume + volume = bombast. Li's one-dimensional programming brought a dreary sameness to ECSO concerts.
Shimada's musical selections have been more varied in his first season than perhaps the entire decade of the Nineties for the ECSO. He has brought back the neglected Classical era, with wonderful performances of Mozart and Haydn that employed a small orchestra and succeeded with wit and energy and phrasing. He put a good deal of post-Romantic 20th century music on the stage, including Bernstein, Copland, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Poulenc and Ravel. He quickly won the trust of his audience, and there was little fidgeting when he presented new music (though his choices have been, wisely enough, short pieces).
And more importantly, he's won the trust of orchestra members. He shows up for rehearsal with his head in the game, and the musicians reciprocate. In concert, he's there when they need him.
Though Shimada showed his mettle with the big Romantic pot-boilers, such as his Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, his finest moments have been some of the most intimate stretches of a score. During the slow movement of the spare Schumann Cello Concerto, the effect was so spellbinding, I had to remind myself to breathe.
Shimada exudes an easy-going warmth, both from the podium and in person, and he's appears utterly comfortable in the spotlight. His close proximity as a resident of the New Haven area (Li lived in Louisiana) has helped him become a familiar face here, as he's made frequent outreaches to civic groups and schools and often gives the pre-concert lectures. He displays none of a maestro's aloofness and reinforces his regular-guy persona with his avid love of baseball, a passion on display in the ECSO window, where a poster-sized photo captures Shimada, in his conductor's tails, throwing out the first ball at an Astros game.
He's an online guy, his Blackberry always at the ready, and since his arrival, the ECSO has started a Facebook page, which has included links to YouTube clips of music scheduled for coming concerts.
The orchestra is the 800-pound gorilla in any arts community. It gets the big stage on Saturday nights, and as former ECSO leader Paul Phillips once noted, if you assess the years of study and apprenticeship represented by the musicians, it's like having 80 surgeons on stage. The orchestra is a huge community and personal commitment of time and money to the art form. You wouldn't want to hand over a treasure like this to just anyone. Looking back across the ECSO season, it certainly seems like the orchestra is in good hands.
New London - The annual Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra choral concert usually tests the carrying capacity of the Garde Arts Center stage. Just how many people can it hold?
Saturday's grand finale to the ECSO season packed the stage with more than 160 singers and musicians, with bass principal Tom Green all but teetering into the audience and one percussionist stationed out a doorway. Music Director Toshi Shimada led a triumphant conclusion to his first season here in a mostly French program, with works great and small, but a performance that was uniformly first-rate.
The two featured choral works were contrasts in themselves: Poulenc's lean and characteristically unsanctimonious 1959 "Gloria" and Ravel's complex 1912 sonic tapestry "Daphnis et Chloe." Neither work featured the sort of part singing found in the bedrock German repertoire for large choruses, but in both works, the choristers were well-balanced and projected powerfully, even in the large orchestral crescendos.
Front and center for the Poulenc was soprano Mireille Asselin, a glamorous presence onstage in a strapless purple gown who charged her solos with emotion, personality and that ineffable quality that reaches across the lights to connect with her audience. In the two final sections, the "Domine Deus, Agnus Dei" and the "Qui sedes," her unforced timbre and heartfelt emotion were compelling.
The chorus was particularly pleasing in the tangy harmonies of the "Domine Deus," and Shimada kept the work light on its feet, particularly in the playful, scampering sections that harked back to Poulenc's Parisian nightlife evocations of the 1920s.
The concert opened with Dukas' short Fanfare to La Peri, with rich, warm playing by the brass and horns, then moved to Debussy's epochal "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune," the type of delicate, highly perishable score at which Shimada has excelled at since his try-out concert here.
The dreamlike Debussy, so shocking to its 1894 audience with its formlessness and dissonances, is a concert-hall staple today. Its opening theme in the flute, beautifully played by principal Nancy Chaput, is one of the signature melodies of the repertoire. (Chaput would take her bows once again for her animated evocation of Chloe's dance in the Ravel.) French orchestration often calls for a sonic transparency, allowing all of the subtle voices to be heard, and nowhere was this more beautifully drawn Saturday than in the closing moments of the Debussy, as the winds gently wafted like spring breezes over muted violins, in a gorgeous coloristic finish.
Shimada opened the second half with Mozart's Symphony No. 31, thematically included for its nickname "Paris" and programmatically included as a literal counterpoint to the French fare, all but devoid of Classical orchestral counterpoint. As in the Haydn symphony performed earlier this year, the small-sized period orchestra was tack sharp in ensemble, both brisk and robust.
The second movement, with the winds finishing thoughts for the strings, was beautiful without sweetness, and the final movement, with the first violins chasing the seconds in a game of counterpoint tag and its exciting stretto section, was a short, fast ride, thrilling without sonic fireworks.
The concert, and the season, ended with one of the most testing works in the orchestral repertoire, Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe." Shimada introduced the concert by saying "it has many, many, many, many notes." When speaking of the score by master orchestrator Ravel, the conductor said it has as many notes as in all of the other concerts this season combined. But the performance belied its difficulty, as Shimada led the chorus and huge orchestra - with two harps, a celeste and every wind instrument in the catalog - with a seemingly effortless grace.
The opening section, a pastoral evocation of murmuring waters, unfolded as naturally as spring, with the burbling waters drawn by the harps and winds and birdsongs from piccolo principal Cheryl Six setting the mood as the warm gently rising melodic sequence coalesced in the cellos and violas. When the wordless chorus entered and the strings swooned, the clear voicings, the virtuosity in the solo phrasing and the seamless melding of it all made you sense this is the best stuff an orchestra can do.
In the second section, with beautiful playing by the entire expanded flute section, the dance of winds and percussion surged toward the explosive finale, where Shimada used his laser-beam sense of direction to drive the 5/4 finale. The chorus rose to add full voice to the pulsing crescendos as the timpani and five percussionists raised the roof.
It was a big finish to a big season for the ECSO, and the mood surrounding this orchestra has never been sunnier.
New London - The arc of progress, much like the arc of a composition's harmonic structure, is seldom an unbroken line. And so it went for the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra Saturday night, in a concert that contained some of the best elements of this orchestra's transition under new leadership - and some ghosts of demons past.
In concert in a storm-swept GardeArtsCenter, Music Director Toshi Shimada wove some of the magic that has created such excitement from his presence here this season, especially in a luminous performance of the Schumann cello concerto, featuring soloist Ole Akahoshi.
But in the usually crowd-pleasing concert finale, Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, repeated ill-timed entrances and bad intonation from the horn section, a sore point in years past, dragged down far too many of the symphony's key moments. It is a rare concert indeed when a small-scale, intimate concerto such as Schumann's draws a stronger audience reaction than Beethoven's propulsive tour de force.
The program opened with Copland's beloved Appalachian Spring Suite, which Shimada took out with a characteristically quick tempo and attention to sonic detail. The poignant opening section, so spare and elegant, unfortunately layered the lilting voices of the orchestra wind and trumpet principals with a chorus of audience coughs.
Through the suite's middle sections, Shimada took a decidedly big-orchestra approach to this ballet suite originally written for just 13 instruments. The dances were forceful, reminiscent of the composer's western suites, with Shimada hopping in place to sharpen the accents. In the third section, the massed strings created a dark bloom straight from the Romantic era, and the famous "Simple Gifts" section, beautifully offered by clarinetist Kelli O'Connor, had to survive the dissenting voice from the horn section, before the hushed final pages, with flutist Nancy Chaput reprising the opening theme before Shimada sculpted an ethereal closing decrescendo.
The Schumann concerto that followed was one of Shimada's finest moments here. The balancing act between the projection of the cello, which cannot fill a hall as would a piano or violin, and the orchestral ensemble was deftly handled, aided by a resonating cello platform used by Akahoshi.
The performance was unhurried and intimate in this single-movement, cyclical work. Akahoshi swayed in his seat through the lush lyrical passages and luxuriated in the warmth of the low registers. In the outer sections (the concerto has three conventional movements, but there is no pause between them) he was virtuosic in the rapid passagework, stops and dashing upward scales that ended with stabbing high cadences.
But it was the intimacy of the slow middle section, with its gentle message so fragile and exposed, that was the center of the evening. Here, Akahoshi and Shimada played a chamber music duet between stripped down orchestral forces and soloist. As Akahoshi closed his eyes and seemed to fall into a private reverie in Schumann's bittersweet lyricism in double stops, a gentle throb of pizzicato rose beneath him from the cello section. When the sound of cello principal Christine Coyle emerged from the section to join Akahoshi for a few measures of duet, the effect was spellbinding.
The concert ended with Beethoven's Seventh, which Shimada took at a fast pace, heightening the excitement and the dangers (don't the two go hand-in-hand?) of this wild rhythmic roller coaster ride. One of the more difficult Beethoven symphonies to play, as the sections wander off and coalesce around stunning rhythmic moments, the Seventh was drawn in high relief by Shimada, using wide dynamics to make the blaze-ups more eruptive.
But time and again, Beethoven highlights key moments with the horn section, and the section let Shimada down Saturday. As the coda of the first movement grows above massed bass strings groaning like tectonic plates, Beethoven scores the horns soaring above it all, and the effect of that dramatic moment was ruined. In the allegretto, one of Beethoven's most beloved movements, the theme and counter theme paced nicely to a delicate and lovely fugato, only to have it all come unglued by sloppy horn work.
Shimada pushed the final movement hard, conjuring a whirlwind as he stabbed his hands left and right to cue the rhythmic accents. But in the end, the parts affected the sum far too much.
It's an odd concert when you walk out with the Schumann, not the Beethoven, stuck in your ear. And perhaps that's more of a tribute to one wonderful performance than a slight for another.
New London - At the start of Saturday's Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra concert, the fourth under new Music Director Toshi Shimada, the conductor asked the audience at the GardeArtsCenter for a mid-term grade.
In the audience's programs, Shimada said, there's a questionnaire, one that focused on audience response to his programming of music new to this audience. "I'm wondering what you're thinking," Shimada said.
The crowd immediately replied with applause.
Shimada then proceeded to conduct a spirited and revelatory program of three works that spanned centuries and once again proved that he has lifted the orchestra to a new level. His conducting reveals the myriad voices in each work, a sonic transparency that never feels fussy, while retaining a keen sense of the overall shape and effect of long spans of composition.
In the evening's big sonic work, Stravinsky's 1947 Suite from "Petrouchka," it seemed that each principal in the orchestra was a star, as the mercurial orchestration spotlighted an obbligato for virtually every instrument amid its cross-cutting meters and rhythmic bustle. In the programmatic counterpoint to Stravinsky, Haydn's 1795 Symphony No. 104, the "London Symphony," Shimada led a pared-down, Classical-era sized ensemble in a beautifully phrased and paced performance that mined all the wit, tunefulness and pure pleasure Haydn offers.
Between these stylistic bookends, he used a smaller orchestra still - just 28 pieces - for Ibert's 1935 concerto for chamber orchestra and alto saxophone, the Concertino da Camera. The soloist in this very French, very Jazz Age work was ECSO Instrumental Composition Contest winner Stephen Charles Page Jr., who traversed its cascades of sixteenth notes and the sax's wide register, from its guttural basement to its upper oboe territory, with a playful ease. In the bluesy opening to the second movement, his honeyed tone and supple phrasing, with no apparent attack to any note, transformed the theater hall with a late-night jazz club spell.
The opening performance of the London Symphony, which Shimada called his "tribute to New London," basked in the charms of the Classical era, a period overlooked for nearly a decade by the former music director. The small orchestra - with just four cellos - was at its best, the string sections responding beautifully to Shimada's fine sense of phrasing. The andante slow movement was both delicate and rhythmically sharp - no small feat - and as the surprising modulations at its center dropped into an emotive minor, Shimada threw back his shoulders and spread his arms, as if swan diving into its depths.
The concluding Stravinsky suite, for all of its sizzle, is woven of thin cloth, with a handful of motifs that reappear again and again. It succeeds on its rhythmic energy and on the musicians' virtuosity as the score's spotlight moves from section to section - and Saturday, it was a success indeed.
Shimada kept the polyrhythms brewing, creating a sense of ostinato as its unifying character. He drew on all of its sonic power, especially the nearly sub-sonic rumblings from the large bass section, the contrabassoon and that most Russian basso profundo of instruments, the bass clarinet.
Virtually all of the principals had fine moments, often paired or in trios. Flutist Nancy Chaput, oboist Anne Megan, pianist Gary Chapman, bassoonist Tracy McGinnis, English hornist Olav van Hezewijk, trumpeter Julia Caruk, and concertmaster Stephan Tieszen all earned their bows.
The sound world was luxurious, from muted brass ensembles to bass clarinet and clarinet doubling to create a box organ effect. The one flaw was the use of an electronic keyboard for the celeste, which sounded far more like a synth than the sparkling chimes of the true instrument.