ECSO opens 68th season with a sonic boom
New London — The Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra kicked off its 68th season Saturday at the Garde Arts Center with a sonic bloom brought explodingly to life in the anticipated finale, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor.
Led by music director and conductor Toshiyuki Shimada, here for his fifth full season, the orchestra never sounded better. Long gone are the days when the ECSO could be likened to a community orchestra; under Shimada’s baton, it has grown to become a musical confection any region would be proud to call its own.
And, most amazingly, this is an orchestra that is still taking chances. On Saturday, it played two pieces by composers still alive, including Augusta Read Thomas, who was at the Garde in person to accept the applause for her dramatic and reflective “Aureole,” which the percussion section played with great precision.
A crowd favorite turned out to be another contemporary piece, “A Little Daneliade” by Georgian composer Giya Kancheli. It featured the hat-bedecked concertmaster Stephan Tieszen playing a rhapsodic, gypsy-like melody on his violin as both the orchestra and the audience took turns vocalizing the occasional “whooh” that brought giggles from the crowd.
The first half of the program concluded with one of Tchaikovsky’s lesser-known works, “Francesca di Rimini: Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Opus 32,” which imagines the spirit and afterlife of a 14th century woman who was executed for having an affair with her husband’s brother. Shimada led the orchestra through the swirling score – featuring a gorgeous solo by clarinetist Kelli O’Connor – in a piece that showed off the string section’s brilliant phrasing and exceptional intonation abilities.
But the bravura performance of the night was saved for last as young soloist Henry Kramer took on the Rachmaninoff piano concerto. Never schmaltzy, Kramer took an understated, straight-forward approach to the music that gave it a refreshing romantic simplicity as he effortlessly glided his hands up and down the keyboard dashing off impossible runs.
From the brooding opening notes of the moderato section to the breathlessly beautiful adagio of the second movement to the galloping passion of the final allegro, Kramer made the music sing with elegant phrasing and liquid hands.
Backing Kramer, the ECSO provided a perfect tapestry by varying tempos and dynamics to create a rich counterpoint to the pianist’s waterfall of notes.
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