ECSO offers an upbeat fairy tale setting for Hygienic weekend

New London – While the noisy buzz of Hygienic weekend lit up New London Saturday evening, drawing many new faces to the downtown, the musical swirl that danced through the Garde Arts Center at the head of State Street played to a familiar audience with the relaxed mood of an evening with friends.

The ambience at the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra concert was as laid back, the tone set by Music Director Toshi Shimada. He greeted the smaller-than-usual audience with a comment about the snow birds, since the January concert often is dotted with empty seats, with many subscribers on mid-winter retreats to the south. Shimada was conversational and relaxed at the podium, even playfully prompting the audience to count the orchestral clock strokes for midnight between movements of Prokofiev’s Cinderella Suite and raising first one, then two fingers as the moment arrived while his baton kept time in the other hand.

The theme of the program was “Storybook Suites,” and three of the four works were inspired by fairy tales. Yet there was a surprise opening selection inspired by the loss of a central character in a 20th century fairy tale: Princess Leia’s theme from John Williams’ “Star Wars” score, a tribute to the passing of Carrier Fisher.

Opening the theme was a long, warm obbligato by horn principal Matt Muehl-Miller, which set the tone not just for the outstanding performances by ECSO principals, but the central role the orchestra’s reconfigured and excellent horn section was to play throughout. When the scheduled concert program began with the prelude to the opera “Hansel und Gretel” by (the original) Englebert Humperdinck, the horn section was luminous in its chorale for the well-known children’s prayer.

The concert took a break from the fairy tale theme for the seldom-performed Schumann Violin Concerto, featuring the Danish violinist Julie Eskar as guest soloist. The last orchestral work written by Schumann before his final descent into madness, the concerto was suppressed by his wife, Clara, and friend Johannes Brahms and languished unperformed for more than 80 years. The dramatic, very symphonic concerto still has many detractors, but its strength is Schumann’s characteristic songlike melodies and direct, unambiguous orchestration. Yehudi Menuhin called the concerto the "historically missing link" between the Beethoven and the Brahms concertos.

Shimada took the outer movements at brisk, propulsive tempos (Schumann’s tempo markings have long been debated in this work that he never heard performed), and the tall, blond Eskar, dressed in an elegant lace-trimmed gown, attacked the opening stops with a take-charge determination.

The opening movement, in the tragic key of D minor, is an odd structure, with a grand and portentous heart-of-the-Romantic-era main theme in the orchestra alternating with an almost introspective lyric theme chiefly in the solo violin. Eskar’s violin voicings were the glue uniting the contrasts. Her transitional passages, with her rich, woody timbre rising to poignant pulsing cadences with a tremolo on a single string amid the multiple stops, was dramatic and powerful, her flourish of the bow over her head on the final phrases adding to the drama. In the soft, searching lyric passages, Shimada ratcheted down the orchestral dynamics to evoke the intimacy of chamber music.

In the slow movement, the intimacy intensified as Eskar spun the long golden thread of the gorgeous, songlike theme that Schumann said was dictated to him by the ghost of Schubert. The quick movement led directly to an attacca outburst of the finale, one of the oddest final movements to any concerto, set as a polonaise. Here, Eskar carried movement, very much the glue tying the work together with fierce passagework and powerful final pages driving to the coda.

Audience response was fairly tepid, with no spontaneous standing ovation. This was likely because the contrasts between the orchestral eruptions that interspersed Eskar’s searching violin passages were oddly subdued, lacking a sizzling attack.

After intermission, the fairy tales returned, with Shimada leading orchestral showpieces from two great ballets by the two great Russian ballet composers: Excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” Suite and Prokofiev’s “Cinderella.” Here, the audience so unfamiliar the Schumann got to waltz in their seats to some very well-known fare, as the orchestra swelled with five percussionists, harpist Colleen Thorburn and an array of the low winds so beloved by Russian composers.

The Tchaikovsky performance opened with a raucous, percussion-driven Introduction and ended with the waltz made famous to a generation of youngsters as the song “Once Upon a Dream” from the Disney “Sleeping Beauty.” The Pas de six variations in between danced past on a wave of arpeggios from harpist Thorburn, spirited dance tempos and lovely spotlight moments from clarinetist Kelli O’Connor, flutist Nancy Chaput and oboist Carla Parodi.

The ballet selections were a bit of a mash-up, culled and regrouped, but the final six sections of Prokofiev showed the ECSO at its best. Shimada was relaxed, turned to speak over his shoulder between sections – “This is where Cinderella arrives at the ball” – and the orchestra was tack-sharp in its sectional play in the mercurial 1945 score. In the two scenes from the ball, the sectional play in the strings, often in Prokofiev’s characteristically off-center figurations, was vivid and exciting.

The “Cinderella,” with its sonic brilliance, sarcastic goofiness and rhythmic surety showed Shimada and company at their best. The concert closed with the ferocity lacking in the Schumann and sent the audience home humming.

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