ECSO opens its 70th season

New London – The Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra warmed up the cold, raw evening Saturday by opening its 70th season with a satisfying serving of musical mood food.

Inside the Garde Arts Center, there was a strong sense of community, as the longtime supporters reunited to share the pride and the artistry. Reaching the 70-year mark is a noteworthy achievement, yet the ECSO proved once again it is an evolving and dynamic musical force. Its sectional play and dedication to excellence seem to get stronger with each new season, and it is far from attenuated – the violin section grows younger every year.

Much of this continuing artistry is driven by the leadership of Music Director Toshi Shimada, both on the podium and off. The head of the conducting program at Yale, Shimada draws talented musicians from the graduate program to the ECSO, often in key positions, and the violin sections in particular were sown with a fresh crop of talent.

And for Saturday’s program, Shimada clearly made a wise move when he tapped a colleague as the concert’s guest soloist. The head of the piano program at the Yale School of Music, Moscow-born Boris Berman carried the flag for the grand Russian tradition of piano excellence in a performance of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3, one that was both affectionate and full of personality.

Hungarian-born Béla Bartók was first and foremost a pianist, so it’s no surprise that in his final months in 1945, he would turn his attention back to the keyboard. But the surprise was the heartfelt warmth of this final work, coming from a composer often seen as harsh and aggressive in his compositions.

From the opening measures of the sparely scored first movement, the 68-year-old Berman imposed calm and lyricism in the often angular and exposed melodic line, full of those odd two-note figures often heard in Bartók’s piano works. The first two movements are stripped of the flashy runs of scales that urge soloists to show off their technique. Instead, Berman showed off his pure musicality by conveying serenity in the halting, sparse lines. His gentle interplay with the winds set the stage for the magical slow movement.

The movement is marked “religioso” and clearly draws on Beethoven’s Op 132 “Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent.” Shimada bathed the hall in calm as the quiet nocturne spread across the stage through the string sections like a balm supporting Berman’s deep emotion in the hymn-like melody. The nocturne was awoken by a dawning of birdcalls in the winds, with Berman first replying and then enlivening the trio section with coloristic effects. In a sly slight of hand, Bartók scored a passage where a spare piano line suddenly brightens – each note doubled on the xylophone, played by percussion principal Connie Coughlan. A gorgeous wind chorale led back to the hymn in Berman’s hands.

The reverence was swept away in the joyous rondo finale, with Berman crisp and rhythmically certain in the first fugue, lightly dancing through the cheery rondo episodes and sharing his tasteful mastery in the rolled arpeggios and washes of the final flash.

Shimada beamed with delight for his Yale colleague during the ovation. This Russian-flavored program opened with Sergey Lyapunov’s orchestration of Mily Balakirev’s notoriously difficult piano piece “Islamey.” The short work came across as more frenetic than exciting, but its flavor of oriental exoticism nicely set the stage for the night’s major work, Rimsky-Korsakov’s vast symphonic suite “Scheherazade.”

Bartók famously wrote a unique work he called Concerto for Orchestra, but the ECSO made a concerto for orchestra of the long, lyrically lush and vastly popular symphonic suite, with virtually every principal shining in repeated exposed obbligato passages. First among equals was concertmaster Stephan Tieszen, who, as the voice of Scheherazade spinning her tales for a thousand and one nights, was achingly sweet in his many obbligatos. But especially fine were horn principal Matt Muehl-Miller; clarinet principal Kelli O’Conner, with her characteristic liquid tone; bassoonist Tracy McGinnis, in some of the more songlike and prominent bassoon passages in the repertoire; and flutist Nancy Chaput, very much the thread that tied the long work together.

The sectional play was strong, especially in the cellos, the often-unison flute section, the tack-sharp staccato attacks of the trumpets, and the robust and rich trombones and tuba.

Shimada was at his most animated in this long, tuneful orchestral showpiece, spreading both arms like welcoming the sunrise to create the huge blooms of sound. From the dramatic oceanic swells of the sweeping central theme, to the Turkish marches of the second movement, to the galloping rhythms of the thrilling final movement, when the full array of themes and counter-themes of the opening movements swept through the hall, it was a triumph for all on stage.

The audience knew it. Shimada was called back after sustained applause, and clearly, the ECSO is far from slowing down at age 70.

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