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New London Big Band dazzles in debut with ECSO

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EDITOR'S NOTE: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the two bands played together in the first half of the concert.

New London -- The battle of the bands has become a staple of high school music competitions, but Saturday night at the Garde Arts Center featured a blending of the bands that brought a packed house of nearly 1,000 to its feet as the New London Big Band made its debut on stage with the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra.

The concert featured many amazing musicians, including the ECSO's principal clarinetist Kelli O'Connor, who tore it up as soloist during the combined bands' performance of Artie Shaw's "Concerto for Clarinet," which concluded the concert. Wearing a dazzling blue dress, O'Connor alternately mesmerized by bending notes like a snake charmer and then blasting straight ahead with sassy confidence.

It was a tour de force.

Earlier, to kick off the second half of the concert, the 17-piece New London Big Band, led by U.S. Coast Guard Band trombonist and arranger Sean Nelson, took over to play seven jazz and classical pieces. The ensemble, which has wowed audiences at The Social Bar + Kitchen in downtown for the past three years, brought terrific energy to songs such as "Satin Doll" by Duke Ellington and "But Not for Me" by George Gershwin, as well as two of Nelson's own compositions, including "Brisket and Bean," an ode to hometown Texas cooking.

The band's ensemble work was seamless, and solos by Nelson, Cedric Mayfield and the crossover ECSO-New London Big Band trumpeter Thomas Brown were exciting to hear.

It was also fun to watch and listen to the byplay between Nelson and ECSO conductor and music director Toshiyuki Shimada, who recalled his years of playing with both a symphony orchestra on clarinet and big band on saxophone. Nelson at times would start up a piece, and then Shimada would hold the tempo for the combined ensemble.

The first half of the concert featured Shimada at the helm of the ECSO, conducting the opening work, Florence Price's "Concert Overture No. 2," an homage to spirituals such as "Go Down Moses" and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen." Price is acknowledged as the first African American female composer to have her works played by a symphony orchestra.

"We should really honor her name," Shimada told the audience.

The concert also included a series of top big-band tunes, including "In the Mood" and "Moonlight Serenade" that had older audience members reminiscing and younger ones (and this was a younger audience than usual) tapping their toes to the syncopated melodies. The first half of the concert concluded with Gershwin's "Girl Crazy," a piece that allowed the personality of the ECSO to shine through.

As the music concluded, Nelson and Shimada stood side by side enjoying the applause as one said "I don't know about you, but I had a great time." "We'll do it again," said the other.

The enthusiastic audience response made it clear another combined concert would be more than welcomed. In fact, if "back by popular demand" has any weight these days, it would happen again tomorrow.




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