ECSO shuffles up the programming

ECSO music director Toshi Shimada
ECSO music director Toshi Shimada

Toshi Shimada is an iPhone-texting, Facebook-friending, 21st-century kind of musician. But as the music director of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, he often performs music that many associate with powdered wigs and satin waistcoats.

As he prepares for Saturday's opening concert of the season at the Garde Arts Center, Shimada is excited about a new kind of orchestra program, his strategy to shake up the repertoire.

"We wanted a change," he says. "Because we are in a new climate, we needed something to match the contemporary audience."

Through his five seasons leading New London's professional orchestra, Shimada has shown repeatedly that he is both firmly grounded in contemporary music and fully online. In 2012, for instance, the ECSO performed the world premiere of a symphony by Ukrainian composer Svitlana Azarova as the result of friend-of-a-friend connection that led conductor to composer through Facebook.

"This is the iPod Age," he says of today's audience. "They do not want to come to the concert hall and listen to a long symphony by Mahler for 80 minutes. They feel like they should push a button and switch."

Bring on the Shuffle Concert.

Layered into the six-concert season will be two of what Shimada calls "Shuffle Concerts," programs to appeal to the attention spans of web surfers.

"There are a lot of beautiful works of a shorter length that never make it into the concert hall, so I came up with a shuffle - an iPod shuffle."

The concert scheduled for Nov. 22 will include nine short pieces, and the Feb. 21, 2015, concert will present eight - a far cry from the archetypical overture-concerto-symphony orchestral program. (Full schedule, page E5). These Shuffle Concerts aren't replacing the standard approach - after all, the standard concert has succeeded for well over a century - it's augmenting it, he says.

"I'm always thinking of a younger audience, but not forgetting our regulars," he says. "This is the 21st century, so why not just mix everything together?"

The November shuffle will include a true stylistic mix: John Adams' "Chairman Dances" from his 1987 opera "Nixon in China," the heart-stopping Nimrod variation from Elgar's 1899 Enigma Variations, a brand-new commissioned work by Brooklyn rocker-turned-techno composer William Brittelle and Ravel's delirious 1920 take on the waltz, La Valse. Yet for all their differences, all are orchestral showpieces.

Front and center for two pieces on that program will be the young Bulgarian-born violinist Bella Hristova, who has performed in an array of settings from Carnegie Hall to "Prairie Home Companion." This highly sought violinist will be performing with both the ECSO and Musical Masterworks in Old Lyme this season. With the ECSO, she will be front and center for Dvorák's gorgeous Romance for Violin and Orchestra and Ravel's fiery gypsy Tzigane for Violin and Orchestra.

The piece by Brittelle, “The Canyons Curved Burgundy," is a new composition commissioned by the ECSO. For a taste of his blending of the classical and the electronic, here is a video of his 2011 "Future Shock," performed by the Classical Revolution Quartet:

The second Shuffle Concert will be a Latin-American feast to spice up a Connecticut February.

"I was thinking of Mardi Gras, or carnival," Shimada says.

The eight-piece program will include a pair of popular pieces by two gringos - Gershwin's Cuban Overture and Copland's El Salón México - and works by the most well-known Latin-American composers, the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos and the Argentine Alberto Ginastera. The shuffle will conclude with Mexican composer José Pablo Moncayo's tribute to the dance bands of Veracruz "Huapango," which Shimada calls "the encore piece for all Mexican orchestras."

Shimada speaks of other transitions at the orchestra. Arriving will be a new principal oboist - that crucial voice in the center of the stage - in Carla Parodi from the U.S. Coast Guard Band.

"I'm very excited about this," Shimada says, noting a changing of the Coast Guard in that role. Parodi replaces Anne Megan, another Coast Guard Band alumna, who retired last season after anchoring the wind section for decades.

And the final concert of the season will be a full-voiced send-off for retiring ECSO Executive Director Isabelle Singer, the woman Shimada calls "a one-person management team" who has guided the organization for 30 years, nurturing its growth through years when other orchestras have been falling apart.

The season will end with Orff's pulse-pounding secular cantata "Carmina Burana," a favorite with audiences, choristers and Singer.

"Isabelle loves it, so it's a tribute to her at her final concert," Shimada says.

Shimada has recast the orchestra in his five years here, drawing not only from the deep talent pool brought by the Coast Guard Band, but from his day job as music director and conductor of the Yale Symphony Orchestra. He has repeatedly tapped into the excellent graduate program at Yale for soloists, composers and orchestra members. This season, five members of the violin section are Yale graduate students.

And, befitting the shuffle concept, many popular standards are in the programming mix, starting with Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 to be performed Saturday.

And true to form, Shimada sees a thread uniting all the scores he selects. Looking ahead to the January concert, which pairs Mozart's concise 1785 Symphony No. 35, the "Haffner," with Prokofiev's sprawling 1944 sonic explosion (written in just one month) of his Symphony No. 5, Shimada sees parallels spanning the 150 years.

"Both composers were wunderkinds," he says, "and both have an innocent freshness."

Shimada likes to think young.

William Brittelle’s “The Canyons Curved Burgandy” premieres in November.
William Brittelle’s “The Canyons Curved Burgandy” premieres in November.

ECSO SEASON

All performances are at 8 p.m. on Saturdays at the Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London. Season subscriptions range from $158.50 to $345 and single-concert tickets range from $28.80 to $62, with a variety of discounts. Call (860) 443-2876 or visit www.ectsymphony.com for details.

October 25
Augusta Read Thomas's “Aureole” (2013), Giya Kancheli's “A Little Daneliade,” Tchaikovsky's “Francesca da Rimini,” Op. 32, Rachmaninov's Concerto for Piano no. 2 in C Minor, soloist Henry Kramer

November 22
Adams' The Chairman Dances (Foxtrot for Orchestra); Mascagni's Intermezzo from “Cavalleria Rusticana”; Elgar's Nimrod from Enigma Variations; Dvorák's Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F Minor, Op. 11, soloist Bella Hristova; Smetana's “The Moldau;” William Brittelle's “The Canyons Curved Burgundy” (world premier); Fauré's Sicilienne from “Pelléas et Mélisande”; Ravel's Tzigane for Violin and Orchestra, soloist Hristova; Ravel's “La Valse”

January 10, 2015
Mozart's Symphony No. 35 in D Major “Haffner;” Bartók's Concerto for Violin No. 1, Clare Elena Semes soloist; Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 in B Flat Major February 21, 2015 Gershwin's Cuban Overture; Ginastera's Concerto for Harp, Colleen Potter Thorburn soloist; Copland's El Salón México; Ravel's Alborada del Gracioso for Orchestra; Villa- Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 for Voice and 8 Cellos, soprano Lisa Williamson soloist; Oscar Lorenzo Fernández's “Batuque;” Arturo Márquez' Danzón No. 2; Moncayo's Huapango

March 21, 2015
Liszt's Les preludes; John Foulds “Dynamic Triptych,” Gary Chapman, piano soloist; Sibelius' Symphony no. 2 in D Major April 25, 2015 Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in C Major; Orff's “Carmina Burana,” with soloists Jurate Svedaite (soprano), Chris Lucier (tenor) and Maksim Ivanov (baritone), Eastern Connecticut Symphony Chorus and Ledyard High School Select Singers

Conductors: Toshiyuki Shimada; Mark Singleton

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