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New London — The closing pages of Carl Nielsen's Fourth Symphony are nothing if not triumphant. So those final soaring moments were an apt conclusion to a triumphant return of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra to start its 67th season.
Saturday night at the Garde Arts Center, Music Director Toshi Shimada gave further proof why there is no substitute for live music. The oft-recorded Nielsen symphony is a long, dense and at times argumentative composition, yet in Shimada's hands, it was more than coherent, it was thrilling. And the centerpiece concerto — Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 — has been recorded and performed seemingly endlessly. But never quite like Saturday – and that's a compliment.
Guest pianist Vijay Venkatesh, a boyish University of Southern California undergraduate, and Shimada gave this warhorse of a concert piece a softer reading, one full of texture and nuance that went far beyond the two-handed banging and staccato scales that pass for some performances.
Shimada was leading an array of new musicians, with many new members of the violin section and some missing central players, including concertmaster Stephan Tieszen (violinists Lisa Rautenberg and Ben Hoffman taking turns to fill in ably Saturday), assistant principal first violin Ken Hayashi and principal second violin Joan Winters, on a leave of absence for this season. The ECSO also opened with a new cello principal, Christine Coyle.
Yet for all the new faces, the sense of ensemble, especially in the complex struggle of the Nielsen symphony, was remarkable.
California native Venkatesh has performed the Tchaikovsky concerto before with Shimada, when Shimada was conducting in California's 2011 Young Musicians Foundation Debut Concerto Competition, which Venkatesh won. He won again in New London, and the simpatico between conductor and pianist was obvious throughout the performance. When it ended, Venkatesh jumped up and hugged the conductor.
For such a young pianist, Venkatesh exudes a musical confidence, as his reading of the concerto was far more languid, more lyrical and more nuanced than the standard performance. In the many long washes of scales, he would accent his playing with a pulse, a sense of direction that went beyond pianistic showmanship.
Playing a remarkably mellow Steinway, Venkatesh opened with ominously tentative chords in the famous crashing preamble that grabs the attention, then never reappears. But once the concerto got rolling, his sense of color, of dynamics and of phrasing all revealed lyricism in areas that many play as barren passagework, and he showed an affection for the Romantic idiom, including a winning use of supple, rolled arpeggios. A prominent voice in the concerto was also oboist Olav van Hezewijk, who matched Venkatesh's lyricism in Tchaikovsky's singing themes.
With both an endearing stage presence (could we be thinking Van Cliburn here?) and a personal voice, Venkatesh seems destined to make a musical impact on bigger stages.
The concert opened with Dukas' tone poem "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (of Mickey Mouse fame), and Shimada made another case for live performance, leading the orchestra with a sonic transparency that revealed the depth of orchestration, including glittery, small-but-testing passages on the glockenspiel by percussion principal Connie Coghlan.
After intermission, Red Sox fan Shimada updated the audience: "It's the bottom of the fourth – Boston zero, St. Louis two. But the bases are loaded, so I'll hurry up."
He then led a fierce, focused and thrilling performance of the Nielsen symphony, a work the composer titled "The Inextinguishable." Written during the early years of World War I, its message is clear.
Tonally restless, creating a sense of unease even through the lyrical passages, the symphony has one major unifying theme, the lyrical voice of the opening movement, which twists and turns through all four to emerge as a grand triumphant statement. The symphony feels organic, with no pauses between movements, but transitions that feel like seasons.
Its opening, leaping figures exploded on the stage as Shimada began its sonic journey. He led the orchestra through its blaze-ups of trombones and brass, through the Classically tinted wind ensembles of the allegretto, and the despairing struggles of the adagio with a surety. This is a dense score, where sections pile up one atop another, often in metric or tonal collision. Yet in Shimada's hands, it made perfect sense.
The final movement, in retrospect, evokes the Great War's bombardments, with timpanists Kuljit Rehncy and John Frascarelli split on opposite sides of the stage. The dueling timpani several times overpower and subdue the orchestra in one of the symphonic literature's most theatrical gestures, and Shimada wrestled with vast forces with a physicality that felt as if he were pulling the triumphant theme from the music stands into the air with his own hands.
No matter how the Red Sox made out, everyone present at the Garde was a winner.