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Review: ECSO gives glorious performance of "Ein Heldenleben"

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While German composer Richard Strauss was assuredly a less egocentric fellow than his idol Richard Wagner, that's not saying a whole lot. The 1898 symphonic poem "Ein Heldenleben" (usually translated as "A Hero's Life," but more accurately rendered as "A Heroic Life") — Strauss' vast hymn to himself consciously set in Beethoven's Napoleonic key of E-flat major — comprises sections mocking his critics, giving his wife a psychological once-over at a time when the ink was still drying on Freud's theories, and celebrating himself by liberally (and I do mean liberally) quoting from his earlier works.

"Ein Heldenleben" is an artistic title that Donald Trump might have chosen for further self-glorification had he entered and somehow succeeded in a career requiring more talent than moxie.

For Maestro Toshiyuki Shimada to have included "Ein Heldenleben" as the featured work of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra's 2015-16 opening concert required both talent and moxie, it being the largest, most complicated single-movement symphonic work that had been written up to that time, the capper to Strauss' ever-aggrandizing series of tone poems that had begun, not irrelevantly, with "Don Juan" a decade earlier. Giving every section of the orchestra a thorough workout, "Heldenleben" is the sort of piece that the majorest of major orchestras will program to cop bragging rights of virtuosity and endurance.

And it's heartening to report that, yes, Shimada and the ECSO covered themselves with glory in a performance on Saturday that ceaselessly captivated throughout the almost 50-minute work. Though there were fewer players on the stage of the Garde Arts Center than there would have been in a performance by one of these aforementioned majorest orchestras, the orchestral sound was full, sumptuous, and exquisitely balanced, with the strings (including two harps) navigating the necessary shifts from blatant technique-display to late-Romantic warmth of tone; the woodwinds maliciously carping away in their portrayal of Strauss' detractors; the brass, in taking our hero into battle, fomenting the kind of warmongering that brass do best (and also representing, alas, the sort of martial arrogance that would propel Strauss' Vaterland into spearheading two devastating world wars within the next 41 years); and the percussion noisily supporting the brass's efforts, something percussion had been dutifully practicing for centuries, before they were liberated, 15 years hence, by Stravinsky's volcanic "Rite of Spring."

Special mention goes to concertmaster Stephan Tieszen for his masterful rendition of the work's notoriously difficult (and lengthy!) violin solos; to French hornist Matt Muehl-Miller for his sure-lipped reliability; to the trumpet section for demonstrating the utter fearlessness of first responders; and, to cite not-often-cited players, to the tubists for their mock-clunky, parodistic set of parallel fifths, a musical solecism known to every music-theory student who ever handed in a part-writing exercise and got docked for the blunder — in other words, pretty much every music-theory student who ever lived. Strauss may have been vain, but he also had a wicked sense of humor.

The pre-intermission portion of the program showcased clarinetist David Shifrin in a beautifully sculpted performance of Mozart's "Clarinet Concerto in A major." While Beethoven can be seen as the acknowledged master of symphonic outer movements, the award for slow movements has to go to Salzburg's Favorite Son, seven or eight of whose late symphonies and concertos feature adagio movements that rank among the most achingly poignant creations of the entire classical repertoire.

The adagio from the Clarinet Concerto is one of these movements, and Shifrin's and the orchestra's rendition of the five-note descending theme through the paradoxically rising sequence that takes it and us to an apogee of beatific repose is one that will no doubt linger with the Garde's large Saturday night audience.

Elsewhere, in the outer movements, Shifrin impressed with his astoundingly fluid technique, his skill in playing oh-so-softly but penetratingly, and his admirable tone in both the lower and upper registers, while Shimada was able to coax from the orchestra a genial, unforced style of playing that honored the elegant expectations of a Mozartean late-18th-century audience while delighting 21st-century listeners with the surprises and the did-I-just-hear-what-I-thought-I-heard? moments that top off conventional respectability with the reward of genius.

Shifrin was playing an historically correct elongated clarinet (one that looked like the progeny of a normal clarinet that had mated with an English horn), but this stratagem brought mixed results. While the period accuracy is laudable, the instrument has such a muted tone that Shifrin and Shimada's otherwise noble experiments with chiaroscuro and 50 shades of pianissimo robbed the work of some of the unalloyed joy and giddy pleasure, especially in the Rondo finale, that Mozart brings even to the musically uninitiated.

The concert opened, following a sturdy, well-received presentation of the national anthem, with Beethoven's "Leonore Overture No. 3," which featured some crisp wind attacks, a splendid offstage solo by trumpeter Julia Caruk, and Maestro Shimada's ability to shape thrilling climaxes, an ability that was to become all the more apparent in the climax-laden "Ein Heldenleben."


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