The ECSO's e-symphony premieres Saturday
This distinctly 21st-century tale makes you wonder how a musician like Schubert would have made out if he'd had a Facebook page.
On Saturday, the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra will perform the world premiere of a musical form dating back to the era of white wigs and candlelight. The conductor will be a Japanese man living in Connecticut, the composer a Ukrainian woman living in The Netherlands.
The connection that brought them together was both artistic and digital.
The composer, Svitlana Azarova, begins the story of how her 18-minute symphony "Pure thoughts transfixed" made the leap across the Atlantic to debut here:
"It was the first day of January," Azarova says, recalling last year, "and I am thinking, what do I want from this year? I am thinking about performances, my symphony, and 10 minutes later, I get an email from Toshi."
"Toshi" is Toshiyuki Shimada, music director of the ECSO, and the email asked a simple question: Do you have a symphony ready?
Shimada picks up the narrative of how he came upon Azarova's music.
"I have a Facebook page," he says, "and I have a lot of Russian composer Facebook friends. She was a friend of some of them, so I invited her to be a Facebook friend."
Facebook chat and emails ensued, and on New Year's Day 2011, sipping coffee in her apartment in The Hague, Azarova replied: Yes, my symphony is done.
"For me, it was really magic for the new year," she says, via a Skype connection.
The tale should reach its conclusion at the Garde Arts Center Saturday evening, when the symphony premieres and the 35-year-old Azarova takes her bows on her first visit to the United States.
In his first two seasons here, Shimada has performed six new works - five written by women composers. "That's one of my missions," Shimada says during a break from judging graduate student performances at Yale, where he is a professor. "I'm trying to give them a chance. It's still difficult for women to present their work."
The new symphony by Azarova is both a continuation of his advocacy and something new for the ECSO audience. "Her music is representative of what is going on in The Netherlands right now," Shimada says, and the musical trends there are far different from those in the United States.
Online samples of Azarova's chamber music show traces of grand emotive Russian traditions couched in a spare, almost austere, sound world, in which a chord or even a note is left to hang in space to tantalize the ear. This, Shimada says, is the current Dutch musical approach.
"It's like you are walking in nature and encounter different sounds," he says. "It's not an easy piece for the listener - you have to not look for the melody, but listen to the sound."
Azarova was raised in a small city on the Don in the Ukraine. She showed a musical aptitude early, which, in the old Soviet tradition, brought an invitation to musical studies. She briefly studied piano, then violin, but says she learned much about music and its effect singing in her church choir, even though in those waning days of the Soviet Union, church-going "was still not accepted."
Her musical training began, she says, "in the Russian composer school. You put into the music your own dramaturgy." But an important teacher led her toward her current voice. "He said, don't be afraid to throw out material - use only what is important," she says. "He taught me to be selective."
That's not to say that, at least in its formation, her symphony lacks a narrative. Azarova explains that she has always admired the imagery of the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte, and one day as she was traveling to Brussels to spend a day with a friend, balloons suddenly became the theme of the day.
From the train, she saw a single balloon in the sky. Then in Brussels, she visited the Magritte Museum, where his paintings are rife with balloons and his floating, lighter-than-air imagery. And on her return to The Hague, she saw a sky full of balloons as she passed a balloon festival.
"This is a message from Magritte," she thought.
"In the symbolism of Magritte," Azarova explains, "the balloon means 'pure thought.' And for me, all my thoughts are transfixed in music."
The work is for a large orchestra, with three percussion groups. "There are places where we make a lot of noise," she says with a laugh.
With its relatively short duration and musical freshness for the local audience, Azarova's symphony should be one of the more intriguing performances of the season.
"I think it will be the most avant-garde piece we will be performing in New London for a while," says Shimada, who is committed to helping keep classical music alive by performing new works.
But Shimada also knows there is a paying audience out there that supports the orchestra to maintain the touchstones of the repertoire. So Saturday's concert will end with the best-known of all symphonies: Beethoven's Fifth.
And, yes, Beethoven has a bunch of Facebook pages.
IF YOU GO
What: The Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Garde Arts Center, 325
State St., New London
But first: A pre-concert lecture at 7
p.m. by Music Director Toshi Shimada
and composer Svitlana Azarova
Tickets: $30-$54, with discounts for
seniors and rush tickets for students
and military personnel at $12 Saturday
Call: (860) 443-2876