A joyous finale to the ECSO season

New London – The Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra ended its 70th season Saturday with an evening of sonic celebration. The sold-out Garde Arts Center delighted in a high-energy concert crowned by the world’s favorite anthem: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony’s “Ode to Joy.”

What better way to celebrate?

ECSO Music Director Toshi Shimada is such a sharp programmer that it may have been no coincidence that this anniversary season opened with the U.S. national anthem and ended with the anthem of the European Union. Coincidence or not, the performance of Beethoven’s epic hour-long journey from darkness to jubilation was a triumph, a fitting coda to the season.

The concert opening with Mozart’s overture to “The Magic Flute,” the string sections gleefully dashing through the fugal counterpoint with a glittering precision. The tone was set for the entire evening in this sharp and fresh performance of a well-known standard.

The energy was perhaps a bit too high at the start of the next piece, Bartók’s Dance Suite for Orchestra, but Shimada handled the miscue in the opening measures with aplomb. He held up his palm like a traffic cop to stop the orchestra and turned to the audience to say, “For you, a full house, we’ll start over!” And the orchestra made the second time charming, as bassoonists Tracy McGinnis and Cheryl Banker led the way into a good-natured and rhythmically enticing reading of the suite, a 17-minute work steeped in the vaguely Eastern and often irregular folk music of the Carpathian mountains.

The Bartók was the sonic inverse of the bright, silvery Mozart orchestration, couched in dark orchestral colors and odd voicings, such as flute and bassoon doubling octaves apart or muted tuba. The second section, basically built of just two notes and plenty of rhythmic propulsion, had Shimada hopping on the podium, and he just kept on dancing. The performance was playful and spirited, and in contrast to Mozart’s Classical sensibilities seemingly a bit off-kilter, making for great fun.

But it’s likely that the crowd that sold out the Garde came for Beethoven’s Ninth. The finale featured the 60-voice Eastern Connecticut Symphony Chorus, which surely drew choristers’ family members to their one-and-only ECSO performance. What they heard was likely to inspire them to return.

Beethoven’s final symphony is a musical epic poem. More than an hour long, it opens with perhaps the most unpleasant movement in the repertoire, and it ends with most unconventional and inspirational. Written when Beethoven was a full decade into total deafness, it stands apart from his other final works, like the string quartets, which are so odd they were thought the work of a madman. Musicologists trace many of its themes back to Beethoven’s “heroic period” by analyzing his notebooks. This is a singular work of art.

From the ominous opening measures, it was clear that Shimada was not going to play nicely. The orchestra clawed into the unsettling movement with ferocity, timpanist Kuljit Rehncy attacking with a fervor that made you wonder if he’d break something. By mid-movement, Shimada’s hands were vibrating as if there was a 100-volt current running through him, and the great crashing catastrophe of the four awful fortissimos that cut off any hope of relief in mid-development were utterly hair-raising. The final ostinato, the stairway to hell originating in the basses, succeeded in intensifying the gloom.

The motoric scherzo that followed, enlivened with Rehncy’s sonic concussion grenades, stepped out briskly and with a sharp ensemble. Once again the bassoons played a key role, with flute principal Nancy Chaput carrying the theme forward atop the swirling energy. It was all attack, attack, attack.

The third movement variations on a pair of lyrical themes calmed the waters. Wind ensembles playing first over filagrees of violin figures and later over gentle pizzicatos spun out a serene, unhurried weave, and horn player Joshua Michal backed much of the movement with a rich, warm sound and songlike obbligatos.

But it’s the finale that draws the crowds to Beethoven’s Ninth. Augmenting the chorus, which was prepared and directed by Mark Singleton, were four vocal soloists: Soprano Sarah Yanovitch and mezzo-soprano Shirin Eskandani, along with two singers familiar to local opera audiences, tenor Brian Cheney and baritone Steven Fredericks.

The movement opened with a dissonant splat and recitative-like phrasings in the bass strings responding to quotes from earlier movements. Then Shimada bent low to crouch in the faces of the cellists to start the famous, songlike ode. The ode took life in the orchestra, and baritone Fredericks took his feet.

Fredericks was commanding and joyous in his role of starting the symphony anew: “nicht diese Töne! (not these sounds!)” The vocal quartet bloomed, and the chorus was admirable in its heft and surety, with sufficient weight and the strong sopranos this work demands as it joined in. The ode turned to a jaunty Turkish march, with piccolo player Cheryl Six leading the parade. The orchestra drove through the long fugal treatment as the voices rested, setting up the one of the grandest moments in the literature. At fugue’s end, a brief calm and then the joyous eruption of full chorus intoning joy and brotherhood.

The final pages were eight minutes of non-stop singing, much of it in stratospheric soprano ranges, a thrilling finale to a successful season … an ode to joy for the ECSO and its chorus.

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