Review: The complex is simply transfixing in a world premiere symphony in New London

New London - Some music works just fine through earbuds, and some you must experience. Saturday night, the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra performed two symphonies - one written two centuries ago by a man who's now a household name, the other written last year by a woman from the Ukraine - that confirmed that there's no substitute for being there.

Despite the snowstorm, a large audience showed up at the Garde Art Center to share one of the most memorable concerts of Music Director Toshi Shimada's tenure here. The audience walked out with the heroic final themes of Beethoven's Fifth ringing in their ears and memories of a terrific young clarinet virtuoso from Yale named Matthew Griffith.

But the star of the evening was seated in the 10th row: composer Svitlana Azarova, whose Symphony "Pure thought transfixed" proved once again the immediacy of music of our time. This compact, 18-minute work draws the listener into its complex sound world as it reveals its simple structure, in which a subdued phrase, harkening back to Romantic roots, blooms from section to section, while a hypnotic, long-sustained single note hovers beneath it, rising and falling in dynamics as it moves through the orchestra.

Of course, it's not really that simple. Shimada held up the gigantic score, huge because Azarova splits orchestra sections into sub-groups: the first and second violins split in four groups each, the violas into three, and so on. "If they're not together," Shimada quipped, "it's OK." The effect Saturday, masterfully presented by the ECSO, is a sonic buzz at times riotous but usually remarkably organic, like forest murmurs.

Before the concert, Azarova spoke of the symphony's "surreal" aspects, and most of those were in the hands of percussionists Connie Coghlan and John Frascarelli, who took the audience on a tour of all the wood blocks, chimes and drums in the kit, often so metrically detached from the tectonics moving the other sections as to be soloists. In one particularly memorable passage, resonant of Bartok, they used bass viol bows on the xylophone and tubular bells to create otherworldly overtones.

By a third of the way into Symphony "Pure thought transfixed," this listener was hooked. Its blending of the static and the ecstatic grew increasingly organic, as its structure pulsed like biorhythms. Shimada and company were masterful in bringing this complex score to life, so much so that Azarova, who was hearing her symphony realized for the first time, said that at the final rehearsal, the symphony burst off the page exactly as she had heard it in her head.

The Garde audience was fortunate to have heard it with her.

In counterpoint to the new symphony, young clarinetist Griffith, the ECSO's 2011 Instrumental Competition Winner, spun an operatic weave of roulades and melody in Weber's short Clarinet Concertino. A sophomore at the Yale School of Music, Griffin beautifully shaped the work's more languorous passages, while dazzling the audience with his seemingly effortless musicality in the showy finale.

As Griffin took his bows, Shimada threw an arm over Griffin's shoulder and beamed like a proud papa, while a contingent of Yalies howled in approval from the balcony.

The concert ended with a fine reading of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, which showcased the cello and bass sections, especially in the second and final movements. This iconic symphony is known for its tension and release and its singular outer movements. But Saturday, Shimada created a warm and textured performance of the repetitive andante that gave each iteration of its two related themes fresh meaning.

And, of course, the triumphant fourth movement is one of the grandest moments in all music, and the ECSO did not disappoint, as it soared to the ether-shattering coda with trombones ablaze and piccolo player Cheryl Six flashing sonic lightning bolts.

What can be better than the old ever fresh and the fresh treated like a classic?


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