ECSO stages a thrilling concert of contrasts, in its parts and as a whole

When 80 or so professional musicians unite to make an orchestra, it's easy to miss the parts for the whole. But Saturday's concert by the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra in New London was a reminder of the depth of talent in this ensemble.

The program at the Garde Arts Center, crafted and led by Music Director Toshi Shimada, featured major solo spotlights for four ECSO principals — cellist Alan Ohkubo, percussionist Connie Coghlan, concertmaster Stephan Tieszen and bassoonist Tracy McGinnis — in a concert of contrasts.

First among them was cellist Ohkubo, who poured his heart and considerable technique into the Dvořák Cello Concerto. Ohkubo and Shimada reminded us all why this is by far the most popular cello concerto.

In the outer movements, the young Ohkubo surveyed the many tests of technique with a swaggering panache, while retaining the musicality in the florid runs, glissandos, sliding stops and rapid-fire figures near the bridge. The cellist displayed a remarkable consistency of timbre, projecting a robust fullness from the lower register and retaining that richness, never flinty or brittle, at the top.

Despite a conventional musical structure, Dvořák's 1895 concerto is scored innovatively so that the soloist almost never plays at the same time as the full orchestra, to allow the soft-voiced cello sonic space for all of its key moments. The exception is the wistful and nostalgic adagio, where the cello plays duets, trios and ensembles with the wind section. Here, other ECSO voices sang beautifully in intimate conversation with Ohkubo, including flutist Nancy Chaput, oboist Carla Parodi and clarinetists Kelli O'Connor and Jonathan Towne. Here the cellist lingered lovingly on key phrases, heartfelt and emotive in the sobbing figures that acted as refrains for the winds. The ECSO's revamped horn section was spellbinding when given the songlike main theme to recap after the trio.

Ohkubo fairly seethed with energy in his seat at the start of the final movement, yet he textured his approach as the rondo wound down to bring back nostalgic earlier material as is ended, cellist and conductor stretching time deliciously. The soloist was given a sustained, sincere standing ovation by an audience that clearly appreciated he was one of theirs.

The concert opened with percussion principal Coghlan and a bass drum front and center and a guest conductor on the podium. Thomas Duffy, director of university bands at Yale, led the ECSO in a composition of his own entitled "Heart-throb." The piece was commissioned in 2010 for the bicentennial of the Yale School of Medicine, and with concert sponsorship by L+M Hospital and Yale New Haven Health, the performance was to promote national heart health month.

Talk about program music! This short, cartoonish orchestral stethoscope surveys the drum heartbeat for such cardiac disorders as diastolic and systolic murmurs and fibrillation before the doctor arrives with sirens wailing to save the day. For those of us (meaning most of us) who have no idea what a systolic murmur sounds like, the six-minute piece seemed a bit of an inside joke. It was great to see Coghlan in the spotlight, but the average 20th century symphony requires far more virtuosity from the percussion principal.

Concertmaster Tieszen was a prominent soloist in the romance from Shostakovich's film score to "The Gadfly" leading up to a sparkling performance of Shostakovich's quick, cheerful (or is that sarcasm?) and testing Symphony No. 9. This was Shostakovich's surprise symphony, not only for its brevity and wit mimicking that of the "Surprise Symphony" composer, Joseph Haydn, but because it was written in 1945 in the wake of Shostakovich's two tragic wartime symphonies, yet has limited scope and no allusions to triumph or to Soviet power.

Shimada gave a long introduction in which he detailed the anti-Stalin protest some believe is contained in the symphony's five movements: the low brass are the Politburo, the trombone is Stalin, the bassoon is the average Soviet citizen, we go to the circus, May Day marches go awry. But since Shostakovich incorporated manic circus music and hard-edged marches in most of his orchestral music, it may be best to recall the advice of Sigmund Freud. When it comes to symbolism, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

This is one tough orchestral challenge, and Shimada's forces were masterful. The work is rife with fast-tempo quick-cuts from section to section and calls for virtuosity in every seat. The manic circus of the third movement encapsulated the hallmarks of this highly satisfying performance. The crazed racing figures in the winds, fervent sectional play as the violins and low strings churned agitated metric cross-currents and a fine solo by trumpeter Thomas Brown were the sort of sectional and solo excellence that defined the entirety.

But most noteworthy was the fourth movement obbligatos by bassoonist McGinnis, some of the longest and surely the most exposed solos for bassoon in any symphony. Even the bouts of audience coughing stilled as she entralled the hall with her long questing lines and rich sound.

The symphony boiled to a finish in the sarcastic loopy march of a finale, with its abrupt coda and conclusion. The audience seemed baffled, and after a pause, the applause came in desultory waves. It had been a spot-on delight of a performance. The ECSO deserved better.


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