Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra and young soloist plumb the depths of Elgar concerto

New London — In an oddly cyclical turn of events, the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra performed its January concert Saturday night with the same pairing as its January concert in 2011: an Elgar concerto followed by a Tchaikovsky symphony. And, once again, this was to Tchaikovsky's disadvantage.

It is both odd and heartening (to this Elgar champion, at least) that for the second time in three years, the winner of the ECSO Instrumental Competition selected an Elgar concerto to perform in concert (and there are only two, after all). At the Garde Arts Center Saturday, young cellist Hyewon Kim rode the crest of Music Director Toshi Shimada's soloist-sensitive leadership to prove once again why the Elgar Cello Concerto is tightening its grip on the repertoire.

In this most sorrowful and longing of concertos, Kim had both a keen sense of the searching phrasing and the flash of showmanship to sell the concerto to an appreciative audience. Though a bit timid in the work's most forceful statements, Kim had a gorgeous, warm sound in the rich lower registers, seated atop an acoustic platform, and was spellbinding in the meditative adagio. In that slow movement, her dark, full sound, singing over muted violins, mesmerized the audience. There wasn't a cough or rattling program to be heard.

Elgar wrote this, his last major work, as he surveyed the horror of World War I and as his wife was dying of cancer. It is elegiac, nostalgic and poignant. Its valedictory mood is inescapable, and it is among the saddest works ever written. A year after its debut and his wife Alice's death, Elgar wrote: "I am lonely now & do not see music in the old way & cannot believe I shall complete any new work." And he did not.

Shimada led the small orchestral ensemble with a sensitivity to the dynamics needed to keep Kim in the forefront while still attacking the work's convulsive crescendos. The concerto opens with a recitative in the cello, less of a desperate cry than usual in Kim's hands, before its haunting, rocking main theme emerges in the violas. This ineffable melody — is it bleak or noble, austere or expansive? — moved from soloist to ensemble as Shimada and Kim plumbed its depths, with Kim selling the big cadences with a flourish of her bow and toss of her head, gestures that felt not the least hammy.

The concerto's technical flash comes in the second movement, and here, Kim was quick and light in the skittering scherzo, demonstrating why she was the competition winner. After the powerful adagio, the finale featured muscular playing by Kim and sonic magic by Shimada, such as when the entire cello section rose up to join Kim in unison. And while Kim came up short in the most dramatic moments, such as the return of the pained first movement recitative, she was utterly comfortable with the slides and other late Romantic devices that give this concerto such exposed emotion.

In contrast to the subtlety of Elgar's sly orchestration, the concert closed with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 in C minor, called the "Little Russian" (for the use of a Ukrainian song in the finale in a time when Ukraine was called "Little Russia.") A symphony all but ignored for decades, it is something of a blunt object, with its outer movements long on bombast and short on thematic development.

But the ECSO sounded wonderful (Sir Thomas Beecham once said his audience didn't like music, they just liked the way it sounded), and the spirited playing compensated for the endless sequencing. The first movement opened and closed with lovely, fragile obbligatos by horn principal Dana Lord, and both strong sectional play, such as the double basses and cellos in the scherzo, and principal voices, such as trombonist Terrence Fay and piccolo player Cheryl Six, made the most of the excitement.

Shimada kept the many crescendos sharp and sizzling, and the long, repetitive final movement never lost its swagger. Unlike the Elgar, there was no searching here. This was in-your-face stuff, and Shimada and company were unflagging in serving up its grand gestures.

m.moore@theday.com

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