New London — Saturday night's Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra was a study in contrasts: voices high and low — with spotlighted works for double bass and for soprano — music concise and sprawling, and orchestral groupings that ranged from a spare 20-piece ensemble to a late Romantic orchestra with so many instruments many of the principals did double duty on different instruments.
Most remarkable was that rarest of concertos, one for double bass, which gave crucial, longtime ECSO principal Thomas Green a chance to take his bow as a soloist. With few tuneful and accessible bass concertos to choose from, Green selected Giambattista Cimador's late 18th century Double Bass Concerto in G Major for the concert at the Garde Arts Center.
A fairly non-descript Classical era structure, the concerto showcased Green's virtuosity, with dashing passagework the length of the neck — more than four times the length of a violin's. The final section of the concerto, in which Green was accompanied by a 20-piece ensemble to avoid burying the bass's soft voice, he stabbed up into high registers seldom heard from the instrument.
Green clearly had a ball, and at the conclusion, he raised his arms like a runner breaking the tape, then comically used both hands to urge on the audience for more applause. The performance was good exposure for his instrument, giving the audience an up-close look at bowing technique for the big fiddle, well-deserved kudos for Green and full of good spirits.
The biggest contrast of the evening was between the two works featuring the winning Canadian soprano Mireille Asselin: Samuel Barber's 15-minute-long, 1947 "Knoxville Summer of 1915," drawing its evocative text from a James Agee short story depiction of childhood contentment and fears, and Gustav Mahler's 55-minute 1902 Symphony in G Major, which concludes with an orchestral song, "The Heavenly Life," based on a traditional folk poem.
Barber's score is all concise beauty and childlike dreaminess, tinged with uncertainty from Agee's text, full of imagery of a summer's evening that all Americans can relate to. Mahler's sprawling score (at 55 minutes, one of his shortest symphonies) is one of orchestral lushness and seemingly endless variations on memorable motifs. The text for the cartoonish poem in the final movement's song was omitted from the program notes, so the audience was spared its details about the fine asparagus to be found in heaven (really) and how St. Peter fishes in the heavenly pond and St. Martha cooks up the catch.
With a fresh, agile voice, Asselin was excellent in both settings. Her operatic training served her well, especially in telling Agee's story in singing prose. Reaching out to the audience in voice and in character, her subtle gestures in lines such as when the night locusts "enchant my eardrums" and the quick drama of "the stars wide and alive," were captivating.
ECSO Music Director Toshi Shimada brought out the best of the transparent score, airy as a summer night and as tumultuous as a child's emotions, and the final dramatic passages of prayer and bewilderment were fully operatic in impact.
The second half of the concert was not as successful, in part due to scale. Mahler, much like his peer Anton Bruckner, seemed to equate size with grandeur, and the performance flagged as it progressed Saturday.
Mahler reportedly said the first three movements evoke the serenity of heaven, and fears about mortality, while the final movement takes us to heaven. Musically, it is a journey from complexity to simplicity as the movements progress.
The opening movement's complexity and contrasting lyricism and drama were spot-on from the beautifully drawn arc of the lilting exposition through the dissonant explosion in the development. Key principals, including French hornist Dana Lord and trumpeter Julie Caruk, were expressive in key moments, and the ensemble drove forward with a keen sense of direction, through all of its twists and turns.
The macabre, devilish dance of the scherzo was eerie and disconcerting, with principals called upon to play in decidedly unlovely timbres and concertmaster Stephan Tieszen alternating between his normal violin and one tuned a pitch higher, to create a ghoulish sound world.
But in the emotional epicenter of the symphony, the 25-minute slow movement, momentum and articulation broke down. Despite some fine voicings early, particularly by oboe principal Anne Megan, both ensemble in the string sections and individual chops ran ragged as it dragged on.
The usually morbid Mahler (the composer of Kindertotenlieder — "Songs on the Death of Children") explained that this calm vision of eternity was inspired by seeing peaceful figures carved on a sepulcher, but this serenity became moribund Saturday. Whether the score is overly long is debatable, but the orchestra clearly flagged, and the audience grew restive.
Asselin took the stage to infuse her fresh voice and spirited stage presence — and a brightening of the score — for the final movement, but even here, the orchestral interludes felt forced and overplayed.
But the audience had its memories of Green's spirited performance and the riveting Barber/Agee to take home and were spared the imagery of asparagus in heaven, so the evening did have its triumphs.