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A trio of ECSO concertos run gamut from serene to splashy to simply splendid

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New London — First came his "shuffle concerts," entire concerts of eight to 10 short classical pieces intended to suit the tastes of the iPod shuffle generation. Then Saturday night at the Garde Arts Center, Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra Music Director Toshi Shimada continued his personal reshuffling of the traditional orchestral program with a new take on the time-honored — and careworn — concert sequence.

For generations, the triple bill of overture, concerto and symphony has been all but chiseled in stone. Saturday, Shimada presented not one, not two, but three very different concertos bookended by a pair of overtures. Queuing up three concertos in a row turned out to be anything but repetitive because of the bizarre mix of soloists in each: a cellist, the entire ECSO brass section — and nesting birds from the Arctic.

Try to fit that on a marquee.

The contrasting concertos were the 2014 Concerto for Brass and Orchestra by principal trombonist of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra James Beckel, Shostakovich's Concerto for Cello No. 1, Op. 107, and Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara's 1972 Cantus Arcticus, Op. 61 "Concerto for Birds and Orchestra" ... birds, brass and a marvelous young cellist named Jung-Hsuan Ko.

The concert opened with a silky, refined performance of a true warhorse, Brahms' Academic Festival Overture. Here, Shimada brought out its contrasts of lyricism and bravado with all the ebullient high spirits that has kept this work so popular.

Next, one of the first and most enduring of multi-media orchestral works, the Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, with Shimada turning to face the balcony to cue the soloist, the sound technician. The Finnish composer recorded nesting birds in the Arctic wetlands and wove his icy evocation of the windy, open tracts into his field recording.

Its hushed opening began with flutists Nancy Chaput and Clare Nelson repeating short phrases, like the sameness of birdcalls, calls to be echoed in the trumpets and winds in a musical portrait of the cool vastness of the north. The low brass and low strings broke the static landscape with a warm theme like a sunrise, with keyboardist Gary Chapman glittering sonic hoarfrost on the celeste (a real celeste, at last!).  The work included some lovely interplay between Chapman and harpist Sorana Scarlat before concluding with piercing cries from trumpet principal Julia Caruk as the ensemble grew in grandeur amid washes of glissandos.

The contrast with the next concerto, featuring a flock of brass players, couldn't have been sharper, with the densely orchestrated, up-tempo and high-volume Beckel Concerto for Brass, in which the trumpets, trombones, tuba and horns engaged in an often antiphonal give-and-take of entire sections.

Made up of three very similar movements in both tempo and themes, the concerto was built of staccato themes, with layered polyrhythms, and every sort of voicing possible from brass. Each of the principals were spotlighted with obbligatos, none more pleasing than the long, tuneful solo by tuba principal Gary Sienkiewicz. Its purpose to showcase the sections was capped off when the all the brass sections rose and stood for a rafter-rattling unison coda.

The ebb and flow of dynamics ebbed once more for the scaled-down orchestra (the fine, new horn principal Matt Muehl-Miller the only brass player in the ensemble) for cellist Jung-Hsuan Ko's powerful performance of Shostakovich's darkly unsettling Cello Concerto No. 1.

In one of the most testing of cello concertos, the winner of the annual ECSO Instrumental Competition was a commanding presence. She excited from the start, with her attack of the four-note Shostakovich musical monogram theme filling the hall at even the lowest registers. Throughout, her command of timbre and her rich, resonant sound proved her to be a natural soloist. Whether in lyric legato lines, powerful triple stops, frenetic runs the length of the fingerboard or eerie harmonics, her technique was so solid that the challenges all but went unnoticed for her pure musicality and expressive powers.

Ko propelled the first movement like a runaway train, with hornist Muehl-Miller and piccolo player Cheryl Six mimicking the stabbing four-note figure. She was at her best in the emotive slow movement, where her mastery of dark timbres and her expressive phrasing carried the center of the concerto from unease to sorrow to despair, and long, brooding cadenza that followed. After a fine obbligato by Muehl-Miller, she emerged with deathly harmonics over skeletal figures by Chapman in the celeste and carried that otherworldly mood forward over blank, forlorn violin figures. It was powerful drama.

The cadenza that followed was a technical tour de force, with stops spanning her full spread of fingers, simultaneous bowing and pizzicato, and frenetic runs leading into the ambiguous wild dance of the finale ... is it comic or is it angry? Shostakovich seldom unbuttons to reveal himself.

The spare ensemble and soloist played out the drama to perfection, and the long standing ovation for Ko was richly deserved.

Shimada wanted the audience to walk out humming, so he closed with Wagner's Overture to "Die Meistersinger." It was a glorious noise, far from refined, with the brass section, still pumped up from their concerto showpiece, smothering the stage with unbalanced volume.

As the composer Richard Strauss advised conductors, 'Never look at the trombones. You'll only encourage them."


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