This is a public service announcement … with bassoons

If you feel at loose ends waiting for these gray days to lengthen and raise the curtain on the sunny outdoor season, just think about this: For three Saturday nights over the next couple months, New London's main entertainment attraction lights up the weekends.

That would be the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra.

The Garde Arts Center's first and foremost resident, the ECSO energizes not just the theater, but the entire downtown area on concert nights. I see this every time I go out to dinner before a concert.

Last month, we walked into Singapore Grill, pretty far from downtown, on a concert night, and proprietor Sonny Chok said, "Going to the concert? I hear it's going to be a good one."

I'm fairly certain that the affable restaurateur doesn't know that I write about the orchestra for The Day. His was just a reflection of the groundswell that the orchestra sends through this city. They are - or should be - a central point of pride for this small city.

Think about it 80 virtuosos assembled on one stage. Any one of them has the art and craft to amaze. The music they play gets you in a visceral way, either in its emotion or its propulsive dance meters or its big audio dynamite (an orchestra in full roar is pretty hair-raising). Most concerts feature music or a soloist considerably younger and fresher than the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan or most of the creaking rockers at the casinos - and none of these ECSO musicians need a capo to change keys,

Every ECSO concert is a big event. Each costs about $65,000 to stage, so if you're more of a bean counter than a beat keeper, that should impress you. It costs a lot to put so much talent on stage, and the investment made by its ardent supporters merits respect.

Most of this talent, professionals with many years of education, is pretty local. Most of the woodwinds - the oboes, bassoons and such - and most of the brass - the trumpets, trombones and such - arrived here courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard Band, one of the academy's most enduring gifts to our community.

You might think that you have no knowledge of classical music, but you do. It's everywhere, from the tune you sang to learn your ABCs (from Haydn's Symphony No. 94 in G major) to cartoons and movie soundtracks to cellphone ringtones. To hear it live, so big and robust with the ECSO filling the stage, is a thrill.

Think of the stuff they perform as world music. So far this year, we've had music from China, France, Russia - even a couple pieces from Connecticut. The next concert features the music of a lad from a small Danish island who left home at age 14 to become an army bugler (Carl Nielsen), the son of a German piano teacher who went on to make his name in Vienna (some guy named Beethoven) and a nice Jewish boy from Massachusetts who made it big on Broadway (Leonard Bernstein).

A couple times a season, the orchestra finishes a piece, everyone claps and the composer steps out to take a bow. We've seen that twice so far this season, living proof that so-called "classical music" is not by and of dead people.

The music director, Toshi Shimada, keeps the atmosphere in the hall relaxed and welcoming, and the sheer quality of each concert sets this art organization apart. In scope and in talent, there's nothing in the county to compare.

After the last ECSO concert, a friend said to me, "Pretty darn great for Podunk!" That idea may be upside down: The presence of an orchestra like this means we're not in Podunk anymore.

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