Berlioz piece and soloist Semenenko highlight ECSO concert

Editors note: This version corrects the name of the English horn soloist from a previous version.  

 

A standard way of judging any group's performance effectiveness lies in the answering of two related questions. How well they did do what they set out to do? And to what extent was what they set out to do worth doing in the first place?

Let's attack the easier matter first. Maestro Toshiyuki Shimada has honed the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, a fine and responsive group of instrumentalists, into a truly admirable ensemble, with many of their laudable attributes being on aural display Saturday evening in the second concert of their season at the Garde Arts Center.

The program bore the umbrella title of "Euro-Latin Passion" and opened with Hector Berlioz's "Roman Carnival Overture," a deceptively tricky work for the orchestra to play and for the conductor to coordinate.

Berlioz doesn't get enough credit for essentially birthing musical modernism in the early 19th century (though the baton had been passed to him, so to speak, by Beethoven). Quirky continuity, strangely uneven phrase-lengths, bravely inventive orchestral sonorities are just some of what this Frenchman unleashed upon such willing offshoots as Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss.

Shimada and company reveled in the spunkiness of it all, in a performance alternately jagged — in a good way! — and melodious. The rhythmic sense was sure, the orchestral balance astute, the intonation precise: a solid start to the concert.

The main work of the concert's first half, the Paganini Violin Concerto No. 1, featured Ukrainian Aleksey Semenenko, a winner of a number of prestigious international competitions, as soloist. High expectations greeted his arrival onstage, and he did not disappoint.

His is a full, rich sound, and he possesses a the-case-is-closed fabulous technique as well as — not always to be counted upon with virtuosi of this magnitude — a discerning musicianship and degree of nuance.

Assuming a confident, athletic stance, Semenenko dispatched the huge number of ferociously difficult multiple stops with the bracing ease of an evening stroll on a lovely autumn night; he absolutely nailed a stupefying number of high notes you'd think only Rin Tin Tin might be able to hear; and he elsewhere produced the sweetness that adagio movements demand of soloists but, alas, do not always receive.

Semenenko plays an 18th-century Landolfi violin but, with tone this gorgeous, who needs a Strad?

Shimada kept most everything in tight control — no mean feat — and though the ending of the half-hour concerto, as written, is a bit anti-climactic, the concerto came to a hardy, unifying conclusion.

Assuredly, this should have been the end of the program's first half, giving the audience the time to catch their breath, savor what they just heard and share astonishments.

But the pre-intermission portion continued with Emmanuel Chabrier's "Espana," and it was here that the program — as is said of certain kinds of entertainment that suddenly take a seriously wrong turn — jumped the shark.

From this point on, what was served up was essentially a platter of orchestral bonbons, moving from "Espana" to — following intermission — Ennio Morricone's "Gabriel's Oboe" to Manuel de Falla's set of excerpts from "Three-Cornered Hat" to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnol."

And here we arrive at the second question posed at the beginning of this review. If there's indeed a place for programming this grouping of similar-sounding, similarly orchestrated and not-all-that-substantial material, that place is a pops concert.

But even there, I'd find the sequence of these Spanish and Spanish-ish works repetitive and cloying.

The final work, the "Capriccio Espagnol" — not overly hard to play but quite easy to listen to — is a staple of youth orchestras and "family concerts." Chabrier's "Espana" is almost an audience hum-along, and the de Falla excerpts, in these particular surroundings, brought little new to the aural discussion. (Shimada, however, gets no demerits for actually stopping the orchestra mid-movement because of an internal derailment, charmingly clueing in the audience as to why, and then re-starting. How often do we encounter this level of honesty?)

But how many swirly, flashy symphonic endings — even well-played ones — can one concert withstand? This one had three — Chabrier, deFalla, and Rimsky-Korsakov — and would have had four if the Berlioz could have, against the historical odds, conjured up swirliness as well as flashiness.

One issue is that the umbrella title of "Euro-Latin Passion," which at first blush sounds like a slogan for a Sophia Loren line of cosmetics, has been too smotheringly applied.

Another issue is that the overall musical substance of the entire concert tended toward the slight. Even the Paganini concerto is vastly more admired for its dazzling soloistic opportunities than its actual musical content.

Yes, there was also "Gabriel's Oboe," nicely realized by soloist Carla Parodi. But partially given the placement of this largely non-descript piece on the program, it made practically no impression. (Saturday was, however, a fertile night for double-reed players, with English hornist Olav van Hezewijk and bassoonist Tracy McGinnis also contributing well-shaped — even slyly humorous — solos.)

The ECSO's motto for the season is "Escape and Refresh." I would suggest that overlong and boxed-in concerts such as this one (made moreso by superfluous introductory chit-chat from the stage and podium) would benefit from an escape into greater substance.

And it appears that the ECSO's January outing — an interesting mixture of the familiar, the unfamiliar, and the new — might just fill that bill.

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