Just start the season without me

From grade school onward, autumn always felt like the season of beginnings. Most Septembers in adulthood, I start to write about the approaching season in music, but not this year.

This year, that changes. This year, I follow the moving van out of town.

As I leave both The Day and Connecticut for my old stomping grounds on Cape Cod, it seems somehow mandatory to reflect on the vibrant classical music community that I’ve been fortunate to cover for this paper for more than 20 years.

Southeastern Connecticut has been a gold coast for musical options. Some concert series arced and vanished, like Connecticut College’s Concert & Artist Series or Summer Music at Harkness. Some sprang up and blossomed, like Musical Masterworks in Old Lyme, or our two opera companies, Salt Marsh and Connecticut Lyric. And one solidified its stance as the region’s top performing group: the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra.

You couldn’t hope for a better concert spot outside of a handful of major cities than here. Not a week passed, in season, without a good reason to attend a concert.

My tenure here was bookended by the arrival of two riveting young violin talents: Hilary Hahn at Summer Music in 1995 and Tessa Lark at Masterworks in 2013. After the teenage Hahn performed in Waterford, I had the temerity to write in The Day that she was “well on her way to becoming the best violinist this country has ever produced (gulp!). Who knows, she may be already.” Well, that turned out to be true enough, and though Lark’s career has not been as jet-propelled as Hahn’s, Lark has the gift of musical personality rarely met. She is a star to watch, so stay tuned.

I have attended concerts and operas all across the country, but the most remarkable performance I have ever experienced came at the Garde Arts Center in 1995, when Philip Glass sat at the keyboard with his small ensemble while four singers stood on pedestals to lip-sync Glass’s operatic score to the on-screen characters in Jean Cocteau’s classic film “La Belle et la Bête.” It might sound like stunt, but it was the artistry of opera at its finest, full of emotion, striking stagecraft and, of course, a fine score.

The life span of Musical Masterworks, now in its 25th season, has pretty much matched my time here and continues to be the finest concert experience one could hope for. The chamber music series almost never fails to delight. The small venue, with its ideal acoustics, makes the listener feel like a participant. I know of nowhere else where the immediacy of music is so gripping — or where a concert-goer can have such direct contact with such big-time, big city virtuosity and musicianship.

I have so many Musical Masterworks memories: Ignat Solzhenitsyn weaving a dreamworld of Scriabin; Jeremy Denk invoking a sonic riot of Ives; or Lark transforming Bach’s D Minor Chaconne into a full-scale, Technicolor drama. But it’s a pair of Schubert piano trios that stay with me most: the well-known E Flat performed as if new — exemplifying that chamber music cliché about a “conversation among friends” — by Lark, Edward Arron and Jeewon Park to illuminate a dark February evening, and the sunny D Flat, performed as the May breeze filtered through open windows in the hall by Chee-Yun, Stephen Prutsman and Andres Diaz that lifted my spirits as few musical events ever have.

I’ve been through three music directors with our musical centerpiece, the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra. (Does any organization outside state government have a less euphonious name?)

And it’s far from mere cheer-leading to say that under its current leader, Toshi Shimada, the orchestra has blossomed into an outfit that outpunches its weight. It seems like every season, I have scribbled in a notebook in mid-concert at some point: “never sounded better.”

When I arrived, the orchestra was led by Paul C. Phillips, a committed performer who often over-reached, his goals exceeding the musicianship he fostered. Then came the 10-year rollercoaster ride with Xiao-Lu Li, who arrived with a bang and left with a whimper. By the end of his second season, I wrote that it seemed inexplicable that the ECSO board extended his contract. By his sixth season, I gave up, as his bad habits became more and more pronounced, and my reviews became as tedious and repetitive as his concerts. Li left the ECSO in 2008 and has apparently given up as a performing musician. Just run an online search for news of him …

Enter Shimada. He has remade the ECSO both for the musicians, whose morale is sky high, and the audience, who have learned to trust his fondness for tweaking their ears with new works and to hang on every note of old favorites.

The 2009-10 season made a believer of me. Over the holidays, I spent the week in New York, where I attended a few concerts, and returned to an ECSO concert right afterward. I was amazed to hear the ECSO play Haydn’s “London” Symphony with all of the joy and wit and focus I found lacking in the Alan Gilbert-led New York Philharmonic concert that I had just attended. Even more striking was the comparison between the performances by Peter Serkin of Brahms Piano Concerto No 1 in Carnegie Hall with Jaime Laredo and the same concerto Serkin had performed here with Shimada. Shimada has the ability to draw the best from both his resident band of musicians and from renowned touring soloists.

I’ll never forget the world premieres Shimada led here, his achingly beautiful Schumann cello concerto ensemble and, above all, the ECSO’s performance last season of a favorite of mine I had been nudging Shimada to perform, Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. It was so nuanced, so sensitive to all the voicings and so flat-out exciting, I still listen to the recording of that concert on the orchestra’s website.

Eastern Connecticut is well-stocked with talented musicians who consistently make conductors look good and pop up time and again in pit orchestras all along the shoreline. But many of the ECSO principals are not only musically talented, they are upbeat and engaging ambassadors for classical music, people such as ECSO trombonist Mark Weaver, percussionist Connie Coughlin, violinist Joan Winters, bassist Thomas Green and concertmaster Stephan Tieszen. (I know, I am leaving out so many …)

The ECSO tendrils run deep through our community. Its wind and brass sections are fed by the U.S. Coast Guard Band, which auditions for top talent and draws it to our community to the benefit of all, as teachers and as performers.

Almost unbelievably, two opera companies have sprung up here during my years, and they continue to stage satisfying productions. The bedrocks of this burgeoning opera world have been Simon Holt, music director of the Salt Marsh Opera — and seemingly everything else of merit taking place in the Stonington/Mystic area — and Adrian Sylveen, who leads Connecticut Lyric Opera. The region is stocked with voices, but the leading man and prima donna in residence are clearly the very fine tenor Brian Cheney and soprano Jurate Svedaite, who seems to find no role beyond her grasp, from Puccini to Wagner.

Like ghosts, there are countless memories from Summer Music, the outdoor festival that lasted from 1984 until 2001. There was the gentle rain that started falling as if on cue on the drought-parched park as the late Peter Sacco led his orchestra in the “Simple Gifts” section of “Appalachian Spring,” the late flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal storming off the stage in a rage when fireworks at Ocean Beach interrupted his performance, and New London’s own Larry Rachleff returning to guest conduct a hair-raising “Jupiter” Symphony in the series’ final summer.

So much music here, but perhaps no musical entity better exemplifies the musical climate here than Chorus of Westerly concerts, full-voiced testaments to the dedication of one man to harness the power of art to transform a community. The effect of chorus founder and leader George Kent to implant some of the world’s greatest music into the fabric of a small town represents American optimism and perseverance and achievement at its best.

I still get choked up recalling Kent’s farewell concert, after 50 years of building an artistic landmark. He led a tectonic performance of Brahms’ German Requiem, with that final verse: “.. Sie ruhen von ihrer Arbeit; denn ihre Werke folgen ihnen nach” ... “They will rest from their labors; for their deeds follow them.”

No resting yet. The season is about to begin.

Milton Moore has retired as The Day’s classical music writer. He can be reached at mmoore3@gmail.com.


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