ECSO and chorus perform a majestic final concert of the season

New London — What could have been a more fitting conclusion to the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra and Chorus concert Saturday night — and the concert season itself — than a grand, soaring choral version of that staple of graduation ceremonies, Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” march?

The mood at the final concert of the ECSO’s 69th season was both celebratory, as its theme of music for regal coronations would imply, and valedictory, since it was the last of four concerts for the chorus and six for the orchestra in their 2015-16 seasons. The performances were strong, and strong too was the sense of kinship among the 75 musicians and 70 choristers filling the stage at the Garde Arts Center, as they welcomed two of their own as soloists.

The most obvious family tie was seated at the Steinway for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19, in the guise of pianist Eva Virsik. The wife of Music Director Toshi Shimada, Virsik last performed here four years ago as soloist in the second Chopin concerto. Addressing the nearly-full hall prior to her taking the stage, Shimada began by noting that it was very unusual for a soloist to return after so few seasons. He then explained that two years ago, his wife underwent surgery and treatment for breast cancer, and “she didn’t know if she could play again.” Her return, he said, was intended to inspire those in the audience facing medical crises.

Virsik quickly dispelled any doubts about her artistic recovery. A native of Slovakia who trained in Moscow, she crafted even the running waves of arpeggios that wash through the outer movements with a sense of cantabile lyricism, a songlike, easy flow reflecting the axiom that Russians teach pianists to touch the keys, not strike them.

This concerto, which Mozart himself played at the coronation of Austria’s Leopold II, is one of Mozart’s most symphonic, less of a showpiece for the soloist than a wholly realized orchestral work in which the pianist often plays the role of an entire orchestral section involved in sectional interplay. You couldn’t have asked for a more collegial concerto for spouses to share the stage.

In the opening movement, Shimada evoked that crucial sense of Classical proportion in the sectional exchanges of the almost naïve, songlike main theme, and Virsik emerged from the development with a gentle lyricism in the theme’s recapitulation to carry forward Shimada’s approach. In the final movement, with its long piano rests as the 48-piece orchestra churned powerful fugatos, Virsik dashed from the stretto episodes with quick and energetic passagework and scales the length of the keyboard that were wonderfully textured to be exciting and rhythmically forceful without pointless bombast.

It is doubtful that any ECSO soloist has ever received such a heartfelt bear hug from the music director. The ovation for Virsik was long and warm after this winning performance.

The other member of the ECSO family featured as a soloist was its resident musical polymath, ECSO principal trombonist Terrence B. Fay who put aside his instrument to perform as tenor soloist in the evening’s main work, Elgar’s Coronation Ode.

The ECSO Chorus took the stage for the second half with its director, Mark Singleton, leading the reduced orchestra and 70-voice chorus in that most rousing and well-known of coronation anthems, Handel’s “Zadok the Priest,” written for the coronation of King George II in 1727 and performed for the coronation of every British monarch since. The choral attack was sharp and dynamic, enlivened with trumpet decorations by principal Julia Caruk.

The stage filled to overflowing with Elgar’s late Romantic-scale orchestra as Shimada returned for the finale. (The acoustics of the Garde are always improved when the orchestra moved forward of the proscenium.) Joining tenor Fay as soloists were soprano Sarah Yanovitch, mezzo Caroline O’Dwyer and baritone Brian Vu in Elgar’s sweeping evocation of empire, both lush and steeped in grandeur.

Fay, who enjoys a dual career as both a singer and instrumentalist, and baritone Vu were both well-focused and powerful in their solo turns, projecting above some pretty hefty sonic forces behind them. Soprano Yanovitch was appropriately plaintive in her moments of musical entreaty, and mezzo O’Dwyer shared a lovely ensemble with the choristers singing at half-voice in “Crown the King with Love!” The Elgar ode, written for the Coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1902, has little complex contrapuntal part singing, calling instead for beauty and purity of sound – and a display of imperial power in the closing pages. The chorus was successful even in the a cappella “Peace, gentle peace,” and throughout, the bass section was a rich and solid foundation and the sopranos sounded fresh and youthful.

It was, in fact, the season’s crowning glory.

 

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