ECSO, Garritson shine while performing Gershwin

New London – Highlighted by the powerful and precise piano solos of Lindsay Garritson in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue,” the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra played an appealing all-American concert Saturday night at the Garde Arts Center.

Under the baton of conductor and music director Toshiyuki Shimada, the orchestra showed its jazzy side just before intermission when Garritson stepped to the stage in a glimmering dress to wow the audience with her ebullient performance of a piece that has become a staple in the orchestral repertoire.

From the opening moments when principal clarinetist Kelli O’Connor elicited smiles with her devilish glissando, the ECSO had this one in hand, with each section taking its turn to shine.

To Gershwin, “Rhapsody” was, as he wrote, “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.”

And that’s exactly the way it sounded Saturday, with its mostly upbeat tempos and changing moods, from frenetic to lushly romantic to just plain sassy.

Garritson’s lightning-like hands suited the piece well as she elicited the syncopated power of the music with amazing dexterity and almost percussion-like precision. The audience gave her a well-deserved and extended standing ovation, after which she rewarded them with a scintillating solo encore of the piano rag “Intoxication” written by American composer and pianist John Novacek.

Interestingly, the final piece of the night, “Grand Canyon Suite,” was composed by the same man, Ferde Grofe, who orchestrated Gershwin’s “Rhapsody” and is largely credited for its success because Gershwin in 1924 did not have the tools to do the orchestration himself.

And, as could be heard Saturday night, Grofe was a talented composer in his own right, adept at painting scenes with sound.

“Grand Canyon Suite,” considered one of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century, is probably best known for its depiction of the clop-clopping of the mules used to haul items up and down the canyon, a sound accomplished originally through the use of coconut-shell drums but just as effectively Saturday with temple blocks.

Grofe’s orchestration in this suite is charming, and conductor Shimada played it to the hilt, from the beautiful opening “Sunrise” section of squeaky violins and the birdsong of piccolo and flute to the concluding “Cloudburst” section that he rode to a wild ending full of brass and drums.

But the highlight, of course, was the middle “On the Trail” section featuring the braying of recalcitrant donkeys in the violin parts and the dramatic and sudden ending.

The concert included two other pieces, “Pioneer Dances” by Peggy Stuart Coolidge and “Our Town,” an orchestral suite by Aaron Copland arranged from his movie score of Thornton Wilder’s classic play. The ECSO played each with verve and commitment, even if neither wowed the audience. While Copland is a well known composer, less is known of Coolidge, and Shimada told the audience this is a shame. More female composers should be heard, he said, apologizing for the general lack of music programming involving women.

“You should know her name, I think,” he added.

Editor's Note: The original version of this review misspelled the name of conductor and music director Toshiyuki Shimada.


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