Tuning up: The classical music season starts now

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The ECSO pauses to spend time with old musical friends

Five years ago, conductor Toshi Shimada arrived here to energize the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra with his sparkling rapport with both audiences and musicians and a fresh look at the concert repertoire here.

He brought seasons full of surprises, such as his 2010-11 season that featured the music of four contemporary women composers or last season's performance of Tan Dun's Water Concerto, a theatrical new approach to sound and light on the concert stage.

He has scheduled season after season of surprises, and this one is a surprise too:

By any criteria, it is conventional.

Squeezing in time to discuss the season between on-going auditions for the second violin section, Shimada sits in the ECSO office with season brochure spread before him. "I wanted to sink back a little bit into the Romantic period this time," he explains. "I don't know if it's the economy or the programs, but our subscriptions are down. And I do hear from people that they don't like the new music."

This season's six concerts at the Garde Art Center in New London features a couple works by Tchaikovsky, a couple by Brahms, a couple by Beethoven, plus some Mozart, Sibelius and Elgar. It's a season firmly grounded in the Romantic and late Romantic periods, capped off in May by a performance of Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" ("The Rite of Spring").

And, curiously enough, the Stravinsky suite and the Saturday's opening work, Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," were made famous to generations of Americans by the animated film "Fantasia," so the season both opens and closes with a Disney imprimatur.

"Now that I've been here four years, in my fifth season, I don't have to worry about repeating Xiao-Lu (Xiao-Lu Li, the previous music director) so much," Shimada says.

Li's repertoire had a much narrower scope, focused almost entirely on the Romantics. Shimada is carrying on one of his hallmarks this season, by showcasing orchestra principals as soloists: Bass principal Thomas Green in a Baroque work, Cimador's Double Bass Concerto in G Major; and concertmaster Stephan Tieszen and just-departed cello principal Alvin Wong in Brahms' Double Concerto for Violin and Cello. This has been a crowd-pleasing - and orchestra-pleasing - tradition to let the fine ECSO musicians stand in the spotlight.

Many of the nation's professional orchestras have been hard-pressed through the recession and the faltering recovery, but the ECSO has maintained its six-program season and standards through it all. As the 800-pound gorilla in the region's performing arts arena (each concert costs about $65,000 to stage) the financial health of the region clearly affects the financial health of the orchestra.

So Shimada says, while not abandoning his new-music goals, this greatest-hits season is not the end of his innovation, but a resting point.

"It's kind of coming into a safe area and reflecting, okay, where do we go from here," he says.

"The big discussion…," he pauses. "How are we going to serve this community?"

"There are advantages to being small. I go up the street to the buffet, and people talk to me. I can find out what their needs are and what their tastes are - not just our subscribers, but the people who don't come to concerts. I listen to the community, but the community is soft-spoken."

He leans forward and draws imaginary lines on the table top.

"The problem is drawing all these fences: classical music, rock, country. We need to take out the boundaries."

He looks out the window to State Street for a moment and says, "It's difficult to fit all the music into six programs. I'm trying not to program 'oh, this again.' I'm trying to keep things fresh, even with old works."

Some of Shimada's observations on works he has scheduled for the coming season:

Nielsen: Symphony No. 4: This dramatic piece was scheduled for last season's concert snowed-out by Superstorm Sandy, but the Carl Nielsen Society in Denmark didn't know that and sent the orchestra an attractive citation. "We already have the citation, so we'd better play it!"

Samuel Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915" and Symphony No. 1: "Barber is the real American in an honest way; Copland is a little affected."

Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 (the "Little Russian"): "Full of energy and more Russian than his later symphonies. It's full of folk songs, a lot like Borodin."

The Beethoven Violin Concerto: The soloist will be William Preucil, concertmaster of The Cleveland Orchestra. "We are old friends, and it's always a pleasure to play with him. He has an eloquent sound."

Some oddities and many favorites ahead at Musical Masterworks

For Edward Arron's fifth season running the Musical Masterworks series, he's come up a five-concert game plan: a lot of Bach, a lot of cellos, a lot of warhorses.

"I want to be people's trusty artistic director," he says, "and we're going to go on a journey through some obscure gems to get to some real favorites."

Most of the programs at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, except for this weekend's unusual lineup, will end with bedrock works from the chamber music repertoire, the music "that made us get into this business in the first place," Arron says. These include the Mozart Clarinet Quintet ("Strangely enough, the most requested piece by our audience members"), the Schumann Piano Quartet, Schubert's "Trout" Quintet, and Mendelssohn's D Minor Piano Trio.

The region's incomparable chamber music series will continue in its 23rd season using the formula that has worked so well so far.

Artistic director and resident cellist Arron assembles groups of three to five prime-time musicians and embarks on two-week musical tours with them. When they arrive in Old Lyme, they perform in the acoustic marvel of a church that adds an immediacy and intimacy to each performance. And, true to form, this season's sequence of Saturday-and-Sunday concerts will feature a musical chair of ensembles, often within the same programs, to perform solos (some of the probing Brahms piano intermezzi), duets (such as a Mozart duo for violin and viola), trios (an entire concert of piano trios), quartets (both conventional and, well, four cellos!), and quintets.

Speaking by phone from New York, just days after his wife (and his favorite pianist), Jeewon Park, had given birth to their daughter, Arron touches on the high points of the coming season, starting with this weekend's unusual concerts: All cello, all the time.

"I'm starting to get self-conscious about being the only cellist out there, and cellists always seem to have a lot of fun together," Arron says. "I think the people in the audience will feel this."

The program will includes cello solos, duets, trios and quartets, including a number of Bach transcriptions, which is part of its appeal. Though acknowledged as one of the greatest composers, J.S. Bach doesn't get on many chamber music programs, because he simply did not write much music for the trio and quartet ensembles featured in chamber concerts. But Bach did write hundreds of wonderful choral works, many of which were for four-part choral settings.

The four cellists will each take a vocal line for transcriptions of six Bach chorale preludes. "Those Bach chorales in that church should be really special," Arron says.

The oddity – and camaraderie – has Arron excited about this opening concert, but the season is spiced with highlights.

The December concert features Masterworks favorite Todd Palmer, who will be featured in Masterworks favorite, the Mozart Clarinet Quintet. But the clarinetist will also perform a 2008 work, written for him and the St. Lawrence String Quartet by David Bruce entitled "Gumboots" for (Bass) Clarinet and String Quartet.

"Todd has helped bring so many new pieces into the world," Arron, and indeed, Palmer has performed new works by Osvaldo Golijov at Masterworks with the St. Lawrence Quartet twice: in 2006, "Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind," and in 2002, "Tenebre."

The March concerts will mark the return of violinist Tessa Lark, who made a sensational debut at Masterworks last season. This winner of the 2012 Naumburg Competition (think: Violin Olympics) bills herself as a "violinist and Kentucky fiddler," and she gets to play both roles in performances of Schubert's "Trout" Quintet and Mark O'Connor's Appalachia waltz. Also in the March ensemble will be violinist Erin Keefe, who is concertmaster for the wonderful and seemingly accursed Minnesota Orchestra (in a lock-out by its Dickensian management team). Keefe will perform both in the larger ensembles and in a duet setting of Bartok Romanian folk dances with pianist Pedja Musijevic.

The Bartok modal dances and Appalachian sounds should weave what Arron calls "the most pleasurable thread, that of folk music."

"Pleasure" is usually the operative word at Masterworks, and it begins Saturday.

The Masterworks season

All concerts are at 5 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, 2 Ferry Road, Old Lyme. For ticket information, call (860) 434-2252 or visit www.musicalmasterworks.org.

Saturday and Sunday: Arrangements and original works for two, three, and four cellos by J.S. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Arvo Pärt and others, with cellists Julie Albers, Zvi Plesser, David Requiro and Edward Arron.

December 7 and 8: Dvorák's Miniatures for Two Violins and Viola; David Bruce's Gumboots for Clarinet and String Quartet (2008); Gershwin's Lullaby for String Quartet; Mozart's Quintet in A Major for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581. Todd Palmer, clarinet; Amy Schwartz Moretti, and Aaron Boyd, violin; Dimitri Murrath, viola; Edward Arron, cello

February 15 and 16: Mozart's Duo in G Major for Violin and Viola, K. 423; Brahms' Intermezzi for Solo Piano; Mahler/Schnittke Piano Quartet; Schumann's Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Opus 47. Benjamin Hochman, piano; Arnaud Sussmann, violin; Max Mandel, viola; Edward Arron, cello

March 15 and 16: Rossini's String Sonata No. 3 in C Major; Bartok's Roumanian Dances for Violin and Piano (arr. Szekely); Mark O'Connor's Appalachia Waltz for Violin, Cello, and Double Bass; Schubert' Piano Quintet in A Major, "Trout"

Pedja Muzijevic, piano; Tessa Lark, violin; Erin Keefe, violin and viola; Edward Arron, cello; Kurt Muroki, double bass

May 3 and 4: Bach's Sonata No. 3 in E Major for Violin and Keyboard, BWV 1016; Shostakovich's Trio in E minor, Opus 67; Mendelssohn's Trio in D minor, Opus 49. Jeewon Park, piano; Yosuke Kawasaki, violin; Edward Arron, cello

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