Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra ends its season with choral contrasts and the 'Rite' stuff

New London — It’s always a good plan to finish a concert subscription series with something memorable to carry the audience members into the next season.

The Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra did just that Saturday night at the Garde Arts Center, ending their concert season with a full chorus and a definitive bang! Or series of bangs in the guise of the unrelenting power of The Rite of Spring …

ECSO Music Director Toshi Shimada led the audience from a small early Mozart work for just 28 strings to a grand finale in that most thrilling of concert pieces, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, with a gigantic orchestra using just about every instrument that fit on stage. Actually the 93 musicians didn’t fit on stage: A 10-foot extension was needed.

Between these two stylistic bookends were another set of contrasts featuring the ECSO Chorus, Vaughn Williams’ serene and soothing Serenade to Music and Stravinsky’s remote Symphony of Psalms. The Symphony of Psalms, hardly a charmer, was a technical triumph for all involved, especially ECSO Choral Director Mark Singleton who prepared the 80-voices chorus for the challenge they met with aplomb.

You’d be hard-pressed to find any two major works by a major composer that have less in common in effect than these two works by Stravinsky. The choral symphony is chaste, fairly static and technical, while The Rite is raw, sensual and pagan. Yet they have similar harmonic extremes, and both are sonically unique.

The Symphony of Psalms uses an orchestra that mimics an organ, with no violins and violas, two pianos and huge wind sections, including five flutes. The Rite of Spring orchestra is just plain huge: the violins and violas return, and the musical forces include six bassoons, five clarinets, eight horns, two timpanis and four percussionists and a pair of Wagner tubas to join two standard tubas.

The early Mozart three-movement Divertimento in D Major for Strings provided a cheery welcome to the nearly full house, the small string ensemble sounding especially full placed far forward past the proscenium where the sound can bloom.

Singleton took the podium to conduct The Serenade to Music, leading the ensemble and four guest soloists through a luxurious reading of the short work, which opened with a fine obbligato by concertmaster Stephan Tieszen. Devoid of complex part singing, the serenade requires the chorus to evoke pure beauty, and Saturday it did. The vocal sections were balanced, rising to a warm swell with exquisitely shaped lines. The closing moments, with soprano soloist Kathryn Guthrie soaring over a hushed chorus, muted strings and harp, couldn’t have been lovelier.

There’s not much lovely about the Symphony of Psalms, yet the performance was one of the chorus’s finest. The second section is a long static fugue, woven from a singularly un-tuneful fugal theme, and the chorus performed like professionals in this technical material. The last section, drawn from Psalm 150, brightened the mood, and Shimada, now back on the podium, made the most of its rhythmic thrust that contrast the sweet “Alleluia.” It ended with a vision of heaven and hell, the now-sweetened chorus rising above astringent wind harmonies.

The closing Rite of Spring was all you’d hope it to be. This is a concert piece that is as enjoyable to watch as to hear, seeing the parade of odd instruments and huge mutes in tubas, and watching the rapt attention as the musicians keep their eyes glued on the scores during rests, with meters so irregular and the entrances so unpredictable. The rests definitely aren’t restful, trying to keep count of the measures for the odd entrances. Outside the Garde before the concert, an ECSO principal said, “Now I know what it’s like to be a physics major: all that counting!”

Shimada kept a keen sense of pace in this ballet suite that can become fragmented in the wrong hands. The musicians conjured its unique sound world so uniformly that they were a team of stars. Stravinsky sought out strident and unexpected sounds — bassoons played at the top of their register, the entire violin section playing in harmonics, bizarre jumps of a phrase from tuba to piccolo. It all worked.

Written in 1913, the second of Stravinsky’s folk-based ballets, it’s built of short folk-based tunes set against crashing dissonances, driven by ostinatos like chanting or the shaking of rattles. The violence is underscored by the irregular phrasing throughout, so you can’t brace for the blows.

So many sections were a success Saturday, from the mysterious, earthy introduction, through the remarkable doubling of E flat and bass clarinets in a two-octave split in the Spring Rounds, the eerie nocturne of the Part 2 Introduction, that it’s hard to single one out.

As the final Sacrificial Dance drove it home, with a searing brass tutti and the heavily accented polyrhythms churning, Shimada seemed almost relaxed at the podium. He had every right to be. His fine orchestra put a crowning glory on the season.

m.moore@theday.com

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