Shimada reinvents “the Three Bs” for a fine ECSO performance

New London – Music Director Toshi Shimada crafted a program for the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra Saturday night that gave three lesser-performed works by three well-known composers their moments in the spotlight. And each earned its bows, for very different reasons.

The concert at the Garde Arts Center opened with Samuel Barber's Symphony No. 1, written in 1936 when Barber was just 26, a powerful work that many consider the great American symphony – and count me in that group.

Shimada and company were masterful in this concise and compressed 20-minute symphony, swelling huge sonorities from a big orchestra augmented with bass clarinet, contrabassoon, extra brass and harp. This symphony is Barber, the reticent Romantic, again and again expressing the big gesture, often with laser beams of dissonance cutting through the huge crescendos, then holding back, never pressing too far.

The orchestra achieved such rich sonorities that it seemed as if the acoustics had suddenly improved in the hall. Yet even in this very densely contrapuntal score, Shimada was able to preserve a transparency that all the voices shine through.

This entire concert in many ways belonged to the ECSO string sections, as in the Barber and the Brahms and Beethoven that followed, play by each of the string sections was both spirited and precise. The trumpets, trombones and tuba, especially trumpet principal Julia Caruk, were central to the success of the Barber.

But the heart of the Barber symphony beats passionately in the haunting slow movement, and here oboe principal Anne Megan spun a beautiful opening obbligato to set the mood. The quick growth of her plaintive melody into a full-blown Romantic sweep through the entire orchestra (Barber wastes no time in this work) did justice to this masterpiece.

But, oddly enough, the audience reaction and applause was tepid.

Next came Brahms Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, Brahms' final orchestral work that is grave and at times melancholic, relying on the success of the soloists to carry it, as it alternates between often repetitive orchestral passages and very spare scoring to allow the cello to be heard in its dialog with the violin.

Saturday's soloists were familiar faces: ECSO concertmaster Stephan Tieszen and former principal cellist Alvin Wong, who took a position in Australia over the summer. The spirit of bonhomie between these two friends was more than evident as they exchanged smiles during rests, and very winning.

Many of the best moments are given to the cello in the opening movement, and Wong was both emphatic and projected a warm hall-filling sound. Both soloists were dynamic in the paired cadenza that comes at the start, a very testing entrance, to be sure. Tieszen played with his characteristic bright sound, and the pair were sonically balanced throughout, no rare feat, as they played in dialogs, in octaves and in forceful paired stops. Tieszen stood out when carrying the central andante to its conclusion, with very sweet lyricism that burst into blazing passagework.

The concert ended with Beethoven's elegantly crafted and energetic Symphony No. 2, one of Beethoven's last Haydn-like formally Classical compositions before entering his "heroic" middle period. Written at about the same time as Beethoven's cri de coeur of his "Heiligenstadt Testament," where he bemoaned his growing deafness, it is remarkably anguish-free. Berlioz wrote of it: "In this symphony everything is noble, energetic and proud."

Shimada carried it forward briskly, but with Classical restraint, repeatedly holding back his violins, bending to press downward with his left hand to hold down the dynamics to preserve headroom for the fortes. In the Beethoven, the fine sectional string play stood out, along with bassoon principal Tracy McGinnis, who made the most of the many key moments Beethoven provided her, especially in the final two movements.

The spot-on interplay of the string sections in the opening development, Shimada's sure sense of motion and line in the second movement larghetto that abounds with melodies, and his fast-paced reading of the thrust-and–parry of the finale were a tasty serving of Classical era invention.


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