Review: Shimada knows the score with ECSO

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New London - At the start of Saturday's Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra concert, the fourth under new Music Director Toshi Shimada, the conductor asked the audience at the Garde Arts Center for a mid-term grade.

In the audience's programs, Shimada said, there's a questionnaire, one that focused on audience response to his programming of music new to this audience. "I'm wondering what you're thinking," Shimada said.

The crowd immediately replied with applause.

Shimada then proceeded to conduct a spirited and revelatory program of three works that spanned centuries and once again proved that he has lifted the orchestra to a new level. His conducting reveals the myriad voices in each work, a sonic transparency that never feels fussy, while retaining a keen sense of the overall shape and effect of long spans of composition.

In the evening's big sonic work, Stravinsky's 1947 Suite from "Petrouchka," it seemed that each principal in the orchestra was a star, as the mercurial orchestration spotlighted an obbligato for virtually every instrument amid its cross-cutting meters and rhythmic bustle. In the programmatic counterpoint to Stravinsky, Haydn's 1795 Symphony No. 104, the "London Symphony," Shimada led a pared-down, Classical-era sized ensemble in a beautifully phrased and paced performance that mined all the wit, tunefulness and pure pleasure Haydn offers.

Between these stylistic bookends, he used a smaller orchestra still - just 28 pieces - for Ibert's 1935 concerto for chamber orchestra and alto saxophone, the Concertino da Camera. The soloist in this very French, very Jazz Age work was ECSO Instrumental Composition Contest winner Stephen Charles Page Jr., who traversed its cascades of sixteenth notes and the sax's wide register, from its guttural basement to its upper oboe territory, with a playful ease. In the bluesy opening to the second movement, his honeyed tone and supple phrasing, with no apparent attack to any note, transformed the theater hall with a late-night jazz club spell.

The opening performance of the London Symphony, which Shimada called his "tribute to New London," basked in the charms of the Classical era, a period overlooked for nearly a decade by the former music director. The small orchestra - with just four cellos - was at its best, the string sections responding beautifully to Shimada's fine sense of phrasing. The andante slow movement was both delicate and rhythmically sharp - no small feat - and as the surprising modulations at its center dropped into an emotive minor, Shimada threw back his shoulders and spread his arms, as if swan diving into its depths.

The concluding Stravinsky suite, for all of its sizzle, is woven of thin cloth, with a handful of motifs that reappear again and again. It succeeds on its rhythmic energy and on the musicians' virtuosity as the score's spotlight moves from section to section - and Saturday, it was a success indeed.

Shimada kept the polyrhythms brewing, creating a sense of ostinato as its unifying character. He drew on all of its sonic power, especially the nearly sub-sonic rumblings from the large bass section, the contrabassoon and that most Russian basso profundo of instruments, the bass clarinet.

Virtually all of the principals had fine moments, often paired or in trios. Flutist Nancy Chaput, oboist Anne Megan, pianist Gary Chapman, bassoonist Tracy McGinnis, English hornist Olav van Hezewijk, trumpeter Julia Caruk, and concertmaster Stephan Tieszen all earned their bows.

The sound world was luxurious, from muted brass ensembles to bass clarinet and clarinet doubling to create a box organ effect. The one flaw was the use of an electronic keyboard for the celeste, which sounded far more like a synth than the sparkling chimes of the true instrument.

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