Review: A new idea for a concert and a brand new work energize the ECSO

Editor's note: This corrects an earlier version of this story.

New London – Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra Music Director Toshi Shimada concocted a concept for Saturday night’s concert that was intentionally crowd-pleasing. It was both strange and wonderful – and pretty irresistible.

Shimada calls this concept a “shuffle concert,” nine short pieces, ranging from four to 13 minutes in duration, that are mainstays of public radio pledge drives but seldom break into orchestral subscription programs. “This concert was conceived for short-attention-span people,” he said in a pre-concert talk at the Garde Arts Center.

But Saturday’s concert also had a very different atmosphere. For starters, the orchestra dressed more casually, with both men and women wearing black shirts and slacks, and Shimada not only pointed that out, he told the men in the audience to loosen their ties and get comfortable.

Between selections, he was as chatty as an MC at a Vegas showroom, once turning to the audience as the applause faded to ask, “Did you like that piece?” and later introducing the violin soloist with an expansive wave of his arm and saying, “Give her a big New London welcome.” Shimada even walked into the orchestra with his microphone several times to include musicians in the patter.

The audience clearly enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and the musical variety, which ranged from well-known and oft-requested to a brand new commissioned work by Brooklyn-based musical polyglot William Brittelle, a piece entitled The Canyons Curved Burgundy that incorporated a pair of synthesizers, computer samples set into drum pads and a fine performance by singer/electric guitarist Aaron Roche.

Remarkably enough, Brittelle’s short piece sat comfortably on the classical music stage, seeming neither like that uneasy marriage of a string section backing a rock band nor a pop musician trying to prove he could fit in with the grownups. The work had three discrete sections: an opening sequence of a series of phrases seeking direction, a central, song-like section with a distinctive angular figure in the violins and driving synthesizer figures, and a very effective, calm postlude that Brittelle called “a meditation on beauty.”

Saturday’s performance was acoustically flawed (in the loge, at least) by the synthesizers being blasted too loudly from the upper section speakers, often drowning out all else, even the amplified voice and guitar. But when the sound issues settled, neither the synthesizers nor the computer samples were out of place in the orchestral ensemble.

The work’s lyrics, also by Brittelle, are a short snapshot of loss, with a repeated final refrain, “who will sing for me?” Much of its success was the poignant, rock tenor vocals by Roche, with a haunting, long wordless decrescendo over tremolos.

This is a piece – and a composer – I would gladly welcome back. As the articulate Brittelle said before the concert, “Walling off other kinds of music hurts only the orchestra.”

With its rhythmic figures, Brittelle’s piece seemed the next generation of the concert’s opening work, John Adams’ The Chairman Dances. This showy foxtrot, reworked from Adams’ 1987 opera “Nixon in China,” was a rhythmic stew of the repetitive cycles of early minimalism with a shimmering veneer of Romanticism. It was sharply done and energizing, such a tough piece to pull off that that Shimada turned to the audience and said, “Boy, I’m glad that’s over.”

The other star of the evening was Bulgarian violinist Bella Hristova, who was front and center for two contrasting works: Dvorak’s long-lined and charming Romance for Violin and Orchestra and Ravel’s fierce technical showpiece, his Tzigane for Violin and Orchestra. In both, Hristova played with a distinctive voice, a suave certainty and a creamy timbre that was without sharp edges, even in the spikey gypsy attack of the Ravel.

The 1924 Tzigane gave her the opportunity to wow the audience with a smorgasbord of bowing techniques, singing stops, harmonics and a blizzard of sixteenth notes for a finale. She made it seem almost too easy, but great fun was had by all.

The nine-works concert included Elgar’s Nimrod Variation from the Enigma Variations, nicely played but sort of a bleeding chunk, out of context after being ripped from the heart of the larger work, and Fauré’s Sicilienne from the 1898 suite from his 1893 stage work “Pelléas et Mélisande,” which was the small jewel of the evening, with beautiful, lilting phrasing by the string sections.

The first half ended with one of the most requested works, Smetana’s The Moldau, a tone poem depicting the beloved river of his Bohemian home. The opening with flutists Nancy Chaput and Clare Nielsen swirling eddies of sound as the bass strings carried the ensemble forward to the majestic main theme and later the excellent horn quartet over muted violins were memorable moments.

The program concluded with Ravel’s 1920 La valse, that infectious, often grotesque waltz that felt as if it were built from shards of wreckage, like a reconstructed jetliner. The craziness was infectious, and Shimada was at times dancing and at times wildly stabbing cues as the crescendos erupted.

It was a wild and crazy finale, full of startling sforzandos and decomposing dissonances that made the idea of a singer with and electric guitar as part of the orchestra seem not that weird at all.

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