Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra generates some heat with a concert imported from south of the border

New London — Even if you hadn’t checked the program for Saturday night’s Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra concert, there were clues that this one would be different.

First, the musicians’ call sheet listed a timpanist and seven — count ’em, seven — percussionists. Then, upon entering the hall, the stage at the Garde Arts Center was filled with musicians wearing bright, primary colors, not the usual concert black-and-whites.

By the time ECSO Music Director Toshi Shimada grabbed a microphone to greet the audience with, “Buenos días, my name is Ricky Ricardo,” the musical carnival was off and running. Shimada at one point even apologized for missing the Ash Wednesday deadline for the pre-Lenten festivities — “I’ll have to go to confession.”

This was the second of the two scheduled “shuffle concerts” Shimada devised to mimic the fast-paced musical habits of the earbuds set. This one was designed to break the February freeze with some heat from south of the border, and although there was a sameness to most of the fare, sharing the same attributes of rhythm and orchestration, the seven short pieces added up to a large shot of pure energy.

Much of this music has been introduced to audiences worldwide by Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who brought these Latin concert pieces to major music capitals as a highly sought guest conductor over the past 15 years. Some Saturday were well-known — Copland’s “El Salón México” — and some were not. Some were sophisticated long-forms — Alberto Ginastera’s 1950s Concerto for Harp — and some were short, folkish dances — Oscar Lorenzo Fernández’s “Batuque.”

In many ways it felt like a rock concert, with the similarity of the dance-driven pieces, the masses of percussion and emphasis on rhythmic expression, and the large number of short works. In at least three pieces, the violinists held their instruments in their laps and strummed them like guitars.

The centerpiece of the concert was Argentine composer Ginastera’s Harp Concerto, with ECSO principal Colleen Potter Thorburn as soloist. Shimada traversed the quick cuts deftly between pulsing tuttis and smaller chamber-music-like passages, and Thornburn proved an engrossing soloist.

Her interplay with the muted violins and wind ensemble in the slow movement was a musically alluring antidote to the rumba-till-you-drop mood of the evening. The long cadenza to start the third movement was a revelation in her hands, full of shimmering overtones from harmonics and an array of timbres from a variety of plucking and strumming techniques. Seated front and center, Thornburn also gave the audience the rare opportunity to watch a harpist employ the foot pedals on the huge concert harp. It was a very winning performance by soloist and orchestra alike.

The evening’s other soloist was soprano Lisa Williamson, who is becoming a familiar face on opera stages in this area, who was featured in Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 for Voice and 8 Cellos. The former Coast Guard Band vocalist soared effortlessly in the fragile, wordless main theme, especially in its return, when the theme is hummed, not sung, a technical challenge in the large hall that she mastered with aplomb.

The concert was full of raucous moments, not all scored. As the stagehands were arranging chairs between pieces, Shimada stepped forward with the microphone, whipped up the percussionists to get the congas churning, and tried valiantly to get the surprised audience to chant “Ole ole, ole ole.” Never say Shimada isn’t a showman.

The other especially well-crafted musical moments of the evening came during Mexican composer Arturo Márquez’s Danzón No. 2, from his 1990s set of dances. This seemingly simple dance built interest with shifting orchestration and voicings, some powerful and energizing, such as the obligattos well-played by trumpet principal Julia Caruk, and some delicate and playful, like the duets between pianist Gary Chapman and clarinet principal Kelli O’Conner and concertmaster Stephan Tieszen.

Concert attendance was curtailed somewhat by Saturday’s nasty weather, but how often do you get to see Toshi Shimada in a sombrero?



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