ECSO combines abstract art with music during Saturday performance

New London – Art and youth were the themes of the night Saturday as a young cellist and thirty-something composer took center stage in the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra’s “Pictures & Paintings” concert at the Garde Arts Center before a crowd of about 700.

In one of the night’s highlights just before intermission, cellist Yi Qun Xu, winner of last year’s ECSO instrumental competition, played Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme, op. 33.” The talented Yi Qun displayed great poise and masterful technique as her nimble hands glided up and down the strings of her cello, eliciting an amazingly rich tone from her instrument, even on the higher notes.

At times wistful and dramatic, at others solemn and brooding, the piece is intensely romantic throughout, calling on the soloist to have quicksilver hands and a flair for phrasing, and Yi Qun was equal to the task, even managing several almost impossible glissandos that required impeccable control. The audience loved it, giving her a standing ovation.

Also heartening the crowd was a piece written in 2013-14 by Hannah Lash, a faculty member at the Yale University School of Music, who appeared after the first piece of the night to take a bow to enthusiastic applause. Lash’s spare work explored the sonic highs and lows of orchestral music as it painted a picture of crystalline beauty that slowly transformed as if by evanescence into something darker and more sinister.

As the abstract piece was being played, local artist Guido Garaycochea was quickly working on his own piece of art, managing in about 15 minutes to nearly complete his personal reaction to the score through a colorful painting.

Garaycochea, who runs Expressiones Cultural Center but had never painted in front of an audience before, said afterward that he had heard the piece played during rehearsal, but had no preconceived idea of what he was going to paint. The painting was displayed in the Garde lobby during intermission and after the show, and the artist said he would be finishing it up and offering it as part of an ECSO fundraiser.

Another piece intended to frame the evening was Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infant defunte,” a slow processional dance for a little princess that was the second work of the night. Featuring the mellow French horn of Matt Meuhl-Miller, the work as unraveled by the ECSO was like a breath of spring with its dreamy melody played in the most pleasing and languorous legato.

The idea of painting and musicality coalescing is certainly not new, nor is this the first time an orchestra has had an artist respond to a piece of music on stage, but it certainly fit in with the theme of the night, which was highlighted by the concert-ending “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky, arranged by Ravel.

The well-known piece, bravely conducted by music director Toshiyuki Shimada at either breakneck speed or oppositely in an extreme adagio, highlighted the orchestra’s brass section, particularly trumpet soloist Thomas Brown, who was outstanding throughout.

The 10 sections of the piece featured intricate work within the sections of the orchestra, and the timing was good throughout, with the exception of one cutoff toward the end. The overall effect, however, was terrific, with alto saxophone player Joshua Thomas and tuba player Gary Sienkiewicz each adding strong solos to the mix.

The pictures painted during the evening, both literally by Garaycochea and figuratively through the colors of the orchestral arrangements, left patrons smiling even on a rainy February night, another testament to the creative genius of Shimada’s programming and conducting as well as the teamwork of the ECSO players and management.


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