The ECSO is back and primed for their 75th anniversary season.
It was clear, when the existentialist Friedrich Nietzsche wrote "Out of chaos comes order," that he wasn't a member of Local 285-403, American Federation of Musicians in southeastern Connecticut. Had he been so, the philosopher might have said, "Out of chaos comes not necessarily order but, one way or another, the 2021-22 season of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra."
Indeed, the global COVID epidemic — ECSO music director/conductor Toshiyuki "Toshi" Shimada suffered a mild case last summer but is doing well — caused the cancellation of the orchestra's entire 2020-21 season, which included programming to honor Beethoven's 250th birthday.
On Saturday, after 19 months without performances, the 75th anniversary season of the ECSO — now blithely celebrating Beethoven's 251st birthday — returns to New London's Garde Arts Center for a concert before a live audience.
"Of course, COVID devastatingly affected everyone," Shimada says by phone Tuesday from New Haven. "And, artistically, we were in an unanticipated situation. I think musicians and artists across the world never imagined a scenario where we wouldn't find a way to perform for audiences. When there is so much suffering and anguish, we like to believe what we do can provide comfort. We were thinking, a couple of months and we'd be back. Now, we're still in a pandemic, but it looks promising. Maybe we're all starting again."
Shimada pauses, and when he speaks, his voice drops with emotion and intensity. "This opening concert will be so memorable to the musicians — and hopefully for the audience as well. I'm overwhelmed thinking about it and so excited to perform in the Garde again for all those familiar faces. We have missed this so much."
It's part of the job — and fun — that an orchestra's music director gets to plan and sculpt a season's worth of musicians and programs. This typically starts about a year in advance and involves musical themes, a mix of popular repertoire with worthy but lesser-known pieces and composers, newly commissioned works and premiers, and the availability of each concert's guest soloists.
For 2021-22, Shimada and ECSO executive director Caleb Bailey, as well as musicians and board members, were also faced with a mountain of logistical issues just to ensure the hall was safe for performers and audience members. To that end, the Garde utilized COVID down-time to provide absolute top of the line ventilation and all other nuances to maximize safety.
Also, there was the huge question of how entities like the ECSO could financially survive an ongoing pandemic.
"In the beginning of the pandemic, there was real concern for the state of nonprofits and philanthropy," says Bailey by email. "Thankfully, our donors and subscribers quickly dispelled any question of support with continued generosity that kept us going. Because of that, we were able to find new ways to deliver our mission for 18 months."
Over that time, small units of ECSO musicians were able to perform pop-up concerts in safe spaces and online — any viable way to keep a thread of musical normalcy — but, as with everything else, it was severely limited activity.
"As we got closer to our 75th anniversary season," Bailey says, "we were still cautiously optimistic that we'd be able to hold a normal season. As pandemic measures became more commonplace, along with wide availability of vaccines and testing, we realized that, although it would look different, we could indeed have a season of indoor orchestral music."
Creatively, then, there were issues. What to salvage from the cancelled season? Were any of the soloists still available? Have elements of COVID affected programming — either aesthetically or practically?
"We've never had to face something like this," Shimada says, "We have to consider where and how we're going to fit all the orchestra on stage in the context of social distancing and various protocols. Believe me, we're paying attention to the science and medical and insurance stipulations as well as the musical considerations.
"With that in mind, what pieces can we perform? We had to evaluate and anticipate what we can play and, indeed, when we could do it. It was a lot — but it was something we were excited to do."
The results of their efforts will now be unveiled over the course of six concerts, and Saturday's kick-off comes with a nod to last season's original concept.
"We were going to celebrate Beethoven's 250th birthday last year, so for now we'll celebrate 251," Shimada laughs.
The choice to perform Beethoven's 5th Symphony is not just because it's such an iconic work but also because the ECSO last played the piece on Oct. 17, 2009 — which was Shimada's first-ever concert at the helm of the orchestra.
"Most of all, I wanted this on the program because of its uplifting nature," Shimada says. "When people think of Beethoven anywhere in the world, they know the first four notes of this symphony —" Shimada hums the ubiquitous BUM-BUM-BUM-BUH intro — "but's often that's all a lot of them know. It's a work that opens in a minor key and sounds dark and agitated, but the next 30 minutes build on wonderful emotions and it ends in a very triumphal way. It symbolizes the joy and freedom from the hardships we've experienced and we're hoping we're nearing the end of a pandemic."
Also scheduled Saturday is a world premiere revision of Polina Nazaykinskaya's Fenix, a work about symbolic resurrection that Shimada says is appropriate to the idea that "we're getting our lives back."
The third piece will be Haydn's Trumpet Concerto featuring the orchestra's principal trumpeter Tom Brown — who is also familiar to area audiences for his work with the United State's Coast Guard Band and his traditional jazz group The Tom Brown 6.
"Tom is such a great all-around musician and singer," Shimada says. "Tom can play anything from demanding classical pieces to Dixieland, and it's an important characteristic when musicians enjoy and play other styles of music."
As for the course of the entire 75th campaign, subscribers and fans can look forward to, in addition to Fenix, a number of premieres or commissioned works, established pieces from the repertoire by popular composers like Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Bizet, Haydn and, coming full circle in the season finale on May 7, more Beethoven.
So much more
Guest soloists throughout the season include violinist Igor Pikayzen, who will play Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 on Jan. 22; , saxophonist Joshua Thomas of the ECSO and United States Coast Guard Band performing the Concerto for Alto Saxophone by Fuchs-Rush on Feb. 19; guitarist Jason Vieaux interpreting Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez on March 19; and, on May 7, Beethoven's Triple Concerto with cellist Amy Ward Butler and pianist Eva Virsik.
And a very special moment happens during the Nov. 20 presentation, "Heroic Celebrations," when a choir composed of first responders will join the orchestra for a rendition of "You Raise Me Up" by Løvland and Graham.
"It seems so important to remember and acknowledge the work of our first responders, certainly during the pandemic but always," Shimada says. "This seems an excellent opportunity to let some of them take the stage and perform with us. It's an honor. I hope the spirit is reflected through the whole year."
Bailey adds, "The thing I repeatedly come back to is the importance of the 'live' part of our mission: to 'inspire, educate and connect our communities through live orchestral music.' There's real magic in the way musicians interact, react and play off not only fellow players but a live audience, too. Hearing and seeing this again in person will be the best anniversary gift we could ask for – and a reaffirmation of what we can provide for our community."
The 2021-22 and 75th Season of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra
Oct. 23 "Beethoven's 5th"
Nazaykinskaya — Fenix, world premiere of revised edition
Haydn — Trumpet Concerto, Tom Brown, trumpet soloist
Beethoven — Symphony No. 5
Nov. 20 "Heroic Celebrations"
Løvland and Graham — You Raise Me Up, with a choir of first responders
Coleridge-Taylor — Danse Nègre from African Suite, Op. 35, first ECSO performance
Myron — Bell Harbor, world premiere
Tchaikovsky — Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64, another work reprised for the first time since Shimada's first ECSO season
Jan. 22 "Symphonic Fantasy"
Buzovkina — Imitation of Life. U.S. premiere
Shostakovich — Violin Concerto No. 1, with guest soloist Igor Pikayzen on violin
Sibelius — Symphony No. 7
Feb. 19 "Electric Romance"
Rovan — Scattering, world premiere
Fuchs — Rush: Concerto for Alto Saxophone, with soloist Joshua Thomas, of the ECSO and United States Coat Guard Band, on alto saxophone
Shostakovich — Waltz No. 2
Prokofiev — Romeo and Juliet: Suite No. 2
Note: Kenneth Fuchs was a recent guest on The Day's "Leave Work NOW!" podcast. To hear the conversation go to
March 19 "Spring Strings"
Haydn — Symphony No. 75
Rodrigo — Concierto de Aranjuez, with guest soloist Jason Vieaux on guitar
Walker — Lyric for Strings
Bizet — Symphony No. 1
May 7 "Joyful Dances"
Beethoven — Triple Concerto, with guest soloists Amy Ward Butler, the ECSO's principal cellist, and pianist Eva Virsik
Price — Dance in the Canebrakes
Beethoven — Ode to Joy, Finale from Symphony No. 9, with the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Chorus
If you go
Who: Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra
What: Kicks off their 75th anniversary season
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London
How much: $12-$55
For more information: www.ectsymphony.com, (860) 443-2876
Take note: For this event, masks will be required inside the venue, as well as proof of full vaccination. Unvaccinated patrons must provide documented proof negative PCR test within 72 hours of the start of the event, or a negative antigen test taken within 48 hours of the start of the event.