ECSO does it all in a concert of the big and the small

New London — Every now and then, even high expectations get exceeded. Every now and then, that bicycle you were hoping to get for Christmas turns out to be a pony.

So it was Saturday night at the Garde Arts Center, when Music Director Toshi Shimada led the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra in a concert that, on paper, looked to be the season’s best. It turned out to be one of the orchestra’s best ever, performed with a virtuosity, ensemble and flair that would make orchestras in much larger venues proud.

The program itself was a near ideal recipe for success: opening with a Mozart symphony written to be pure entertainment, followed by a seldom-performed (this may have been a Connecticut first), intimate and dreamy Bartok violin concerto, and ending with the sonic rocket fuel of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5.

And the ECSO rewarded Shimada, who concocted this feast, with a performance full of wit, fire and gorgeous intonation throughout the sections.

The guest soloist was violinist Clare Elena Semes, a 23-year-old Juilliard student who has already performed in orchestras in the U.S. and Asia and in major chamber festivals. Her best friend and partner in the violin duo Les Deux, Chelsea Starbuck Smith, was a soloist here two seasons ago, performing the Tchaikovsky concerto.

The 27-year-old Bartok wrote his concerto in 1908 to express his infatuation with a young violinist, who rejected him, so he, in turn, rejected the concerto. It languished unplayed for 50 years.

There was something very appropriate in seeing this slight, pretty young violinist perform Bartok’s love letter, and Semes’ performance Saturday was so relaxed, intimate and personal that this score felt fully hers.

The opening movement, beginning with the solo violin, is a gentle rhapsody, and Semes carried forward its long, unbroken line with such inherent musicality that its difficulties for the audience — the melodic line was often modal and there were few obvious cadences and repeats — were dispelled.

She played with a sweet intonation, making even the tangy stops in the final movement seem smooth, and such a surety of line that the music felt as if it sprung from her. One was so drawn to join her in her reverie that the subtle voicings of the large orchestra were almost too easy to overlook. Even in the quickest passagework of the second, final movement rondo, she never lost her sense of lyricism. Her moments of direct interplay, such as in the final movement with horn principal Brian Nichols, then with piccolo player Cheryl Six, felt playful and conversational.

It’s unusual that such a low-key concerto (it doesn’t even have a showy cadenza) could make a big impact, but Semes pulled it off as if she owned it.

The concert opened with Mozart’s 1782 Symphony No. 35, the “Haffner,” and it was a showpiece for the string sections. Shimada crafted the second movement serenade’s unhurried unfolding with a wonderful, easy dynamic pulse.

The big piece on the program was a big one indeed. Prokofiev’s Fifth featured a huge wind section, including four clarinets, three bassoons and English horn, five percussionist and timpani and a piano. It is high-octane music, and it’s no coincidence that Shimada gave the first bow to the percussion section. The score often plays entire sections as massed forces, and some of the under-appreciated sections of the ECSO, such as the basses and, particularly, the violas, were often spotlighted and made the most of it.

It is a mercurial score, written in 1944, and Prokofiev drew on the broad, dramatic statement of Romantic-era symphonies and injected Modernist harmonies and dissonances and his own, unique sense of musical sarcasm. And, as is his trademark, its hallmarks are a wealth of melodies (when in doubt, add a new tune) and rhythmic fervor.

Shimada was masterful in spinning its dense weave of sonorities (how often do you hear tuba and piccolo doubling?) and its abrupt uprisings of sections and melodies, nowhere more so than in the opening movement development when two themes and variants created a dense, but fully intelligible counterpoint. The horn section, seldom given a rest, was more spot-on in intonation than ever, and the Prokofiev was generous to the principals. Among those who were first among equals were trumpeter Julia Caruk, oboe principal Carla Parodi, bassoonist Tracy McGinnis, English hornist Olav van Hezewijk, tuba principal Gary Sienkiewicz and, above all, clarinet principal Kelli O’Connor, to whom Prokofiev gifted his catchiest tunes.

The final movement, a swirl of energy and laughter, full of sarcastic sounds and memorable melodies, built to its great, crashing coda when rhythms collide in a tidal wave of sound, ending with a final Prokofiev sight gag, as the orchestra suddenly backed off, leaving concertmaster Stephan Tieszen and a few other violinists sawing away madly, as if abandoned, before the final booming cadence.

The mood on stage was electric. They knew they smoked it.


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