ECSO offers a virtuosic tour of deep emotions

New London - By any measure, Saturday's Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra concert was designed to be a big event. It opened with a graceful, yet powerful new work, the young composer present in the hall to take her bows and mingle with the audience. Then the concert moved to the oversize emotional heft of two late Romantic composers who stand worlds apart, their contrasting strengths vividly drawn by Music Director Toshi Shimada.

The concert at the Garde Arts Center opened with "Dessin No. 1," by 23-year-old Kathryn Salfelder, a grad student at the Yale School of Music, where Shimada is a professor. This 2009 piece, already performed by the New England Philharmonic and the Minnesota Orchestra, opened with a meditative pulse in hushed strings, with concertmaster Stephan Tieszen playing a spare, haunting line that returns to sing again and again in various guises.

The work, much in the character of the Eastern European minimalists with the open-air textures of Copland, grew through a series of crescendos without losing its sense of calm and long- arched structure. A simple three-note figure turned elemental and grand, before the work faded away in a glowing pastoral. "Dessin No. 1" is the sort of appealing new music Shimada is stressing in his tenure here, made all the more appealing by the young composer's presence.

But the clear star of the evening was 24-year-old violinist Anna Jihyun Park, soloist in Elgar's Violin Concerto, perhaps the least-performed of all the great violin concertos. Her performance - and the Elgar itself - was set in high contrast against the program's final work, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, the Pathétique. Here were two long (both about 45 minutes) deeply emotional works, written less than 20 years apart, by the grandest, if not the greatest, British composer and that most iconic of all the Russians.

The contrasts of the works' emotional content - Elgar's stoicism in the face of longing and Tchaikovsky's moaning collapse - and their structures - Elgar's complex weave of motifs and Tchaikovsky's parade of melodies - were a compelling theme to the program, especially as Shimada found the heart of each to express.

That violinist Park, the winner of last year's ECSO Instrumental Competition, selected the Elgar to perform was remarkable for a young artist. The concerto lacks the sort of show-stopping cadenzas that allow the performer to toss her hair and ham it up (the first two movements have no have no cadenzas); it calls for almost non-stop playing by the soloist … a heroic effort to match the nobility of Elgar's themes. From the opening phrase, her approach was big and warm, harking back to the violinist for whom the work was written, Fritz Kreisler.

This autobiographical concerto (about love and longing for the woman Elgar called "Windflower," its dedication reads "Herein is enshrined the soul of …..") has almost all of its thematic material presented in an opening orchestral exposition, and the violinist follows in almost nonstop dialogue with the orchestra. Shimada kept the energy high throughout, and Park continually carried it forward, whether in the swooning songlike "Windflower" themes, or in the contrapuntal sparring with the robust orchestral forces. Both soloist and conductor made the complex seem inevitable and natural.

The Elgar relies often on key moments from the brass and horns, and both sections stood out; it was the finest evening for the horn section in memory, casting nostalgic echoes in perfect balance with the soloist and strings.

Aside from a few measures lost and wandering in the woods in the final movement, Park was commanding and gorgeous in her big, warm tone. Whether cascading arpeggios to race the orchestra to the finish in the first movement, or employing a rich, broad vibrato in the eloquent love music of the slow movement, or standing feet apart and hunched like a boxer in her purple strapless dress to attack the buzz-saw stops in the final movement, she carried the evening. In the concerto's magical scored cadenza, when all stops but for tremolos and soft strumming in some strings while, as Elgar put it, the violin "sadly thinks over the first movement," her phrasing was achingly beautiful … a feat much like looking great at the end of a marathon.

Shimada kept this remarkably complex score direct and coherent, aside from that brief disconnection in the final movement. The Tchaikovsky presented a wholly separate set of challenges. A work full of well-known themes, it begins in gloom and ends in the tomb. It's hard to understand how the same composer who can be so graceful and debonair in the second movement and so proud and energetic in the third suddenly sobs and expires in the finale. But Shimada made it work.

This was Tchaikovsky, so it was all about the tunes. Its directness was striking in the wake of the Elgar. The first movement stops and starts as themes come and go, but the moments themselves (and Tchaikovsky is all about savoring the moments) were wonderful: clarinetist Kelli O'Connor flowing like liquid gold in the lyrical theme, the sonic boom of the heart of the development.

The inner movements are among Tchaikovsky's finest. The "waltz" movement was graceful and lilting - the first waltz movement here that didn't move Shimada to dance on the podium, because of its 5/4 meter, no doubt. And the rousing march movement showed the orchestra at its best. Shimada at times dropped his hands and simply listened as the rousing fare stepped out briskly, ending with lightning flashes in the flutes and piccolo. The audience burst into spontaneous applause.

It's always been the final movement that sets the Pathétique apart. Because the composer died just weeks after its premiere, in a likely suicide, the autobiographical content is grim. But Shimada did a marvelous job of retaining the mystery and suspense that the symphony's first audience must have felt.

At first, the dark opening adagio sounds as if it must be an introduction, to swept away by the sort of forceful fare we heard in the march … but, no. Shimada maintained a sense of newness and the unexpected until the funereal trombone chorale emerges from a frenetic crescendo to sweep away all doubt … and hope.

It was a remarkable emotional evening at the Garde, the sort of audience experience that relies entirely on virtuosity and the expressiveness it allows.

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