ECSO finale swings from profound to party

New London — The Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra ended its season with bang – or more accurately, a pop of champagne corks – in its annual concert with the ECSO Chorus Saturday, an evening heavy on the drama and flair of the opera house.

Saturday’s concert at the Garde Arts Center was very much the tale of two halves. The first half of the program was carved from the heart — perhaps the peak — of late German Romanticism, opening with the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s epochal “Tristan und Isolde” before centering on Richard Strauss’ personal farewell and that swan song of Romanticism itself, his Four Last Songs for orchestra and soprano, with a triumphant performance by guest soloist Jurate Svedaite.

The second half starred the 80-voice ECSO Chorus, in a set of six choruses from operas by Wagner and Verdi – both in bicentennial years, born in 1813 – and ECSO Music Director Toshi Shimada, who cheerfully introduced each song and bantered with the full house.

The transition from the profound first half to the party of the second half worked like a charm.

The Wagner and Strauss, so vividly drawn by Shimada and the ECSO, repeatedly evoked that ineffable combination of longing and release, joy and pain, dread and hope that only music can portray. The “Tristan und Isolde” excerpts rode on the swell of Shimada’s dynamics and pacing that carried its unresolved questions forward again and again to the powerful moaning climax of swelling bassoons and horns.

Svedaite is known to local audiences as the star of the Connecticut Lyric Opera, but her performance of the Strauss songs took her into new territory, material as seated at the bottom of the soprano tessitura as the top, with testing low entrances against a full, big orchestra. This is difficult material, and she was masterful.

Shimada took the songs at a brisk pace, and Svedaite fronted the extravagant orchestration with a golden, round sound, focused without sharp edges, at times appearing from thin air like a low woodwind with virtually no attack. She produced spine-tingling moments of sheer beauty (are there four more beautiful songs?), languorously shaping “Langsam tut er” in the second song “September” or soaring in “Und die Seele” in the third, “Beim Schlafengehen,” after concertmaster Stephan Tieszen presented this unforgettable melody with a red-blooded reading of the violin obbligato.

But these songs are not for soprano with accompaniment; the singer is one of 80 musical voices. And the ensemble was rich and lush … skylarks singing in paired piccolos, sighing strings, and, above all, the horn section, always in the spotlight, always spot on. Strauss’s father was a renowned horn player, and the first three songs each end with a horn reply to the soprano; Saturday, first horn Brian Nichols was soulful and vocal, like a baritone in duet with Svedaite.

The second half opened with three Wagner choruses: the Bridal Chorus from “Lohengrin,” the Sailors Chorus from “The Flying Dutchman,” and the Pilgrims Chorus from “Tannhäuser.”Only the “Tannhäuser” chorus fully succeeded, as the first two often used only some of the voices and lacked weight — but the drunken sailors did happily wave their cups and elicit a big laugh.

After an achingly fragile Act III Intermezzo from “La Traviata,” with some fine sectional play from the violins, the chorus performed a rousing “Gerusalem!” from “I Lombardi,” a lovely, lilting “Va, pensiero” from “Nabucco,” and the big show-stopper, the Grand March from “Aida.” In these Verdi works, the chorus, led by Mark Singleton, was at its best.

Shimada had a ball introducing each one (before the Grand March, he said, “The only thing we don’t have is the elephant”), and he hammed it up some on the podium, popping both hands in syncopation in the big choral moments.

He then said, “We have an encore, but we don’t have a tenor. Is there a tenor out there?” A trombone waved in from the trombone section, and it was: “Come on down, Terrence Fay!”

The trombone principal was met halfway by Svedaite carrying a bottle of champagne and two flutes (not the musical variety), and trombonist … err ... tenor Fay joined soprano and chorus for a lively and delightful performance of the brindisi from “La Traviata.”

The audience loved it, and the season ended on a song and a smile.

m.moore@theday.com

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