The Shimada Effect brings warmth and cheer to a winter’s journey

New London — By now, we should just call it The Shimada Effect.

Yes, the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra has a foundation built upon 80 or so talented and dedicated professional musicians. And, yes, midway through its 69th season, the orchestra enjoys a strong base of community support, with star billing at the Garde Arts Center.

But its current status as a must-see event in Connecticut stands on the podium, in the guise of Music Director Toshi Shimada, who since his arrival in 2009 has been a transformative figure. Saturday’s concert, aptly named “The Sounds of Winter,” was a thrilling affirmation of his artistic vision.

Upon arrival, Shimada vowed to perform the works of living women composers each season, and Saturday, the concert opened with a crowd-pleasing performance of the symphonic poem “Winter Bells” by 28-year-old Russian-born composer Polina Nazaykinskaya. She was a student of Shimada’s at Yale, where he heads the conducting program, and the one-degree-of-separation from Shimada continued Saturday with the presence of violin soloist David Halen. Now concertmaster of the St. Louis Symphony, Halen worked together with Shimada for years at the Houston Symphony, and as evidenced by the hugs and elation the two shared at the conclusion of Halen’s fine performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto, they share a deep musical friendship.

And last, but not least, Shimada has tactfully engineered personnel changes through the years, and this season, the revamped horn section (thank you, Coast Guard Band!) has eliminated the final weak link in his talented ensemble and amply deserved the first bow Shimada gave it at concert’s end.

In her pre-concert talk, Nazaykinskaya spoke of her months in rural Russia seeking inspiration and hearing folk songs sung by village elders. The folk motifs ran strongly through her 15-minute sonic winter journey across what she describes as “a Russian winter filled with void, bleakness and an eerie feeling.” It’s no coincidence this work has been performed by major orchestras in two cold climates: Minneapolis and Moscow. 

As played Saturday, “Winter Bells” was grounded in Russian traditions of folkish obbligatos in the winds and complex orchestration, rife with colorful bowing effects and percussion. But it was also thoroughly contemporary in its polyrhythms, its quick cuts and its very cinematic and expansive final theme to end the journey from calm to crisis and back. At the conclusion, Nazaykinskaya took repeated curtain calls to standing ovations.

The well-known Brahms Violin Concerto, last performed here in 2009, was given a masterful and very controlled reading by soloist Halen. In the powerful statements of the outer movements, he leaned into the slashing stops, stamping his foot for emphasis in the opening measures and deliciously hanging off the beat — just enough — in the gypsy rondo finale. But Halen was at his best in the work’s lyricism, especially lovely in the singing passages in the perilous regions high on the neck.

It was very much an ensemble performance, and Halen’s sensitivity to the full orchestra betrayed his 20 years as concertmaster. In the second movement, in which he spun a silvery sound over the burnished gold of oboe principal Carla Parodi’s beautiful obbligatos, he turned to face her during their later duet, then as his passagework glided into a unison with the first violins, he turned to face the section he calls home in St. Louis as they blended magically.

The concert ended with another expression of The Shimada Effect: Having won the confidence of the audience here, he frequently leaves the warhorses in the barn to present seldom-heard works. Saturday, this musical offering was Vasily Kalinnikov’s 1895 Symphony No. 1 in G minor, a tuneful and upbeat expression of the high-water mark of Russian Romanticism in the mold of Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Before the concert, Nazaykinskaya said in her homeland Kalinnikov is called “the Russian Mozart.” That Kalinnikov died young (at 35) may be one factor, but the performance at the Garde explained that sobriquet. The performance was pure entertainment, cheerful, melodic and immediately inviting. 

The symphony opened with no introduction, just diving right into its sonata-form pairing of memorable, engaging themes. Shimada said the secondary lyrical theme is his favorite second theme in all of the symphonic literature, and as it was introduced in the cellos, he bowed low to sway rapturously as he shaped it. The energetic, often marchlike, movement set the tone for strong sectional interplay, including a fugal take on the primary theme capped off in the trombone section.

The sensuous second movement took a Borodin-like journey through Central Asia, with two haunting themes and gorgeous moments for Parodi, English hornist Olav van Hezewijk, French horn principal Brian Nichols and bassoonist Tracy McGinnis.

The playful dance of the scherzo movement and the rousing finale, where variants on the ear-worm themes of the first three movements were set as a rondo, were unflagging in their energy and keen sense of direction, even in often-dense counterpoint. One would be tempted to call the grand, brassy outcry of the coda “triumphant,” yet this was such a good-natured and winning symphony, there was no villain to conquer.

Editor's note: Milton Moore has retired from the staff at The Day, but he is staying on as a classical music and opera critic.

 

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