Review: ECSO finishes season in grand manner

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New London - The annual Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra choral concert usually tests the carrying capacity of the Garde Arts Center stage. Just how many people can it hold?

Saturday's grand finale to the ECSO season packed the stage with more than 160 singers and musicians, with bass principal Tom Green all but teetering into the audience and one percussionist stationed out a doorway. Music Director Toshi Shimada led a triumphant conclusion to his first season here in a mostly French program, with works great and small, but a performance that was uniformly first-rate.

The two featured choral works were contrasts in themselves: Poulenc's lean and characteristically unsanctimonious 1959 "Gloria" and Ravel's complex 1912 sonic tapestry "Daphnis et Chloe." Neither work featured the sort of part singing found in the bedrock German repertoire for large choruses, but in both works, the choristers were well-balanced and projected powerfully, even in the large orchestral crescendos.

Front and center for the Poulenc was soprano Mireille Asselin, a glamorous presence onstage in a strapless purple gown who charged her solos with emotion, personality and that ineffable quality that reaches across the lights to connect with her audience. In the two final sections, the "Domine Deus, Agnus Dei" and the "Qui sedes," her unforced timbre and heartfelt emotion were compelling.

The chorus was particularly pleasing in the tangy harmonies of the "Domine Deus," and Shimada kept the work light on its feet, particularly in the playful, scampering sections that harked back to Poulenc's Parisian nightlife evocations of the 1920s.

The concert opened with Dukas' short Fanfare to La Peri, with rich, warm playing by the brass and horns, then moved to Debussy's epochal "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune," the type of delicate, highly perishable score at which Shimada has excelled at since his try-out concert here.

The dreamlike Debussy, so shocking to its 1894 audience with its formlessness and dissonances, is a concert-hall staple today. Its opening theme in the flute, beautifully played by principal Nancy Chaput, is one of the signature melodies of the repertoire. (Chaput would take her bows once again for her animated evocation of Chloe's dance in the Ravel.) French orchestration often calls for a sonic transparency, allowing all of the subtle voices to be heard, and nowhere was this more beautifully drawn Saturday than in the closing moments of the Debussy, as the winds gently wafted like spring breezes over muted violins, in a gorgeous coloristic finish.

Shimada opened the second half with Mozart's Symphony No. 31, thematically included for its nickname "Paris" and programmatically included as a literal counterpoint to the French fare, all but devoid of Classical orchestral counterpoint. As in the Haydn symphony performed earlier this year, the small-sized period orchestra was tack sharp in ensemble, both brisk and robust.

The second movement, with the winds finishing thoughts for the strings, was beautiful without sweetness, and the final movement, with the first violins chasing the seconds in a game of counterpoint tag and its exciting stretto section, was a short, fast ride, thrilling without sonic fireworks.

The concert, and the season, ended with one of the most testing works in the orchestral repertoire, Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe." Shimada introduced the concert by saying "it has many, many, many, many notes." When speaking of the score by master orchestrator Ravel, the conductor said it has as many notes as in all of the other concerts this season combined. But the performance belied its difficulty, as Shimada led the chorus and huge orchestra - with two harps, a celeste and every wind instrument in the catalog - with a seemingly effortless grace.

The opening section, a pastoral evocation of murmuring waters, unfolded as naturally as spring, with the burbling waters drawn by the harps and winds and birdsongs from piccolo principal Cheryl Six setting the mood as the warm gently rising melodic sequence coalesced in the cellos and violas. When the wordless chorus entered and the strings swooned, the clear voicings, the virtuosity in the solo phrasing and the seamless melding of it all made you sense this is the best stuff an orchestra can do.

In the second section, with beautiful playing by the entire expanded flute section, the dance of winds and percussion surged toward the explosive finale, where Shimada used his laser-beam sense of direction to drive the 5/4 finale. The chorus rose to add full voice to the pulsing crescendos as the timpani and five percussionists raised the roof.

It was a big finish to a big season for the ECSO, and the mood surrounding this orchestra has never been sunnier.

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