New London — The Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra ended its season with bang – or more accurately, a pop of champagne corks – in its annual concert with the ECSO Chorus Saturday, an evening heavy on the drama and flair of the opera house. Saturday’s concert at the GardeArtsCenter was very much the tale of two halves. The first half of the program was carved from the heart — perhaps the peak — of late German Romanticism, opening with the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s epochal “Tristan und Isolde” before centering on Richard Strauss’ personal farewell and that swan song of Romanticism itself, his Four Last Songs for orchestra and soprano, with a triumphant performance by guest soloist Jurate Svedaite. The second half starred the 80-voice ECSO Chorus, in a set of six choruses from operas by Wagner and Verdi – both in bicentennial years, born in 1813 – and ECSO Music Director Toshi Shimada, who cheerfully introduced each song and bantered with the full house. The transition from the profound first half to the party of the second half worked like a charm. The Wagner and Strauss, so vividly drawn by Shimada and the ECSO, repeatedly evoked that ineffable combination of longing and release, joy and pain, dread and hope that only music can portray. The “Tristan und Isolde” excerpts rode on the swell of Shimada’s dynamics and pacing that carried its unresolved questions forward again and again to the powerful moaning climax of swelling bassoons and horns. Svedaite is known to local audiences as the star of the Connecticut Lyric Opera, but her performance of the Strauss songs took her into new territory, material as seated at the bottom of the soprano tessitura as the top, with testing low entrances against a full, big orchestra. This is difficult material, and she was masterful. Shimada took the songs at a brisk pace, and Svedaite fronted the extravagant orchestration with a golden, round sound, focused without sharp edges, at times appearing from thin air like a low woodwind with virtually no attack. She produced spine-tingling moments of sheer beauty (are there four more beautiful songs?), languorously shaping “Langsam tut er” in the second song “September” or soaring in “Und die Seele” in the third, “Beim Schlafengehen,” after concertmaster Stephan Tieszen presented this unforgettable melody with a red-blooded reading of the violin obbligato. But these songs are not for soprano with accompaniment; the singer is one of 80 musical voices. And the ensemble was rich and lush … skylarks singing in paired piccolos, sighing strings, and, above all, the horn section, always in the spotlight, always spot on. Strauss’s father was a renowned horn player, and the first three songs each end with a horn reply to the soprano; Saturday, first horn Brian Nichols was soulful and vocal, like a baritone in duet with Svedaite. The second half opened with three Wagner choruses: the Bridal Chorus from “Lohengrin,” the Sailors Chorus from “The Flying Dutchman,” and the Pilgrims Chorus from “Tannhäuser.” Only the “Tannhäuser” chorus fully succeeded, as the first two often used only some of the voices and lacked weight — but the drunken sailors did happily wave their cups and elicit a big laugh. After an achingly fragile Act III Intermezzo from “La Traviata,” with some fine sectional play from the violins, the chorus performed a rousing “Gerusalem!” from “I Lombardi,” a lovely, lilting “Va, pensiero” from “Nabucco,” and the big show-stopper, the Grand March from “Aida.” In these Verdi works, the chorus, led by Mark Singleton, was at its best.
Shimada had a ball introducing each one (before the Grand March, he said, “The only thing we don’t have is the elephant”), and he hammed it up some on the podium, popping both hands in syncopation in the big choral moments. He then said, “We have an encore, but we don’t have a tenor. Is there a tenor out there?” A trombone waved in from the trombone section, and it was: “Come on down, Terrence Fay!” The trombone principal was met halfway by Svedaite carrying a bottle of champagne and two flutes (not the musical variety), and trombonist … err ... tenor Fay joined soprano and chorus for a lively and delightful performance of the brindisi from “La Traviata.” The audience loved it, and the season ended on a song and a smile.
A sonic showcase for the ECSO and star billing for a key principal
Article published Mar 17, 2013By 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 show pieces 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, an airy obbligato by concertmaster Stephan Tieszen offering sonic contrast.
The one section of the symphony where Shostakovich dropped his guard and showed truee motion 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 the gut-wrenching final pages gave weight to the electronic celeste and harp paired in the movement'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 business is 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.