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    Thursday, May 30, 2024

    Past, present and future sounds: ESCO honors the past and incorporates the future

    Violinist/activist Hyung Joon Won guests with the Eastern Connecticut Orchestra on Nov. 18. (submitted)

    Tokiyushi “Toshi” Shimada has been in the classical music game a long time. He’s been music director and conductor of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra for 14 superb seasons. He has similar roles with the Orchestra of the Southern Finger Lakes and the New Britain Symphony Orchestra. He’s the former music director of the Yale Symphony Orchestra and the Portland (Maine) Symphony Orchestra. Oh, and Shimada was a prized pupil of Leonard Bernstein.

    You get the idea.

    Among the many things Shimada has learned — and taught his pupils and players — is that the time-honored and repertoire-loaded template for classical music programming should be ever-evolving. Reverence paid, of course, to the giants, but with an eager ear attuned to new opportunities.

    Consider the ECSO’s season-opening concert for their 2023-24 season Oct. 21 in New London’s Garde Arts Center — the organization’s 77th year. Rather than a perhaps-expected evening of heavyweight works from the usual Mozart/Bach/Chopin/Tchaikovsky canon, Shimada and his musicians will roll out a refreshing and intriguing program of shorter works titled “Gershwin & Dixieland.”

    “I was thinking instead of diving into opening night with some heavy-duty composers from classical symphonic music, what if we just eased into the new season?” Shimada was on the phone last week, sounding excited to see how the loyal ECSO audience reacts. “We have a smart following that knows repertoire well but are also eager to experience new works and lesser-known or contemporary composers.”

    As it turned out, Shimada and the orchestra had planned a concert at Connecticut College that focused on mostly American composers. The date fell through, but Shimada realized the program would fit wonderfully with his idea to start the ECSO campaign off with a different flavor.

    So they kept it.

    The bill for “Gershwin & Dixieland” includes Monhegan Sunrise (Peace Fanfare), a world premiere by Tom Myron; Bal Bal masqué by Amy Beach; a 100th anniversary performance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with guest soloist (and local piano hero) Gary Chapman; Coleridge-Taylor’s The Bamboula; and a selection of sprightly Dixieland pieces with the orchestra joined by The Tom Brown 6.

    “Tom is our principal trumpeter, a wonderful player and singer and a great person,” Shimada said. “He retired after a long-time career in the (United States) Coast Guard Band, and his Dixieland sextet has marvelous energy and interprets the music in an exciting and authentic way.

    “I think this program and approach will be a unique way to start a season, one that will intrigue our audience and lead the way to a truly ambitious series of concerts.”

    Caleb Bailey, executive director for the orchestra, said, “The ECSO — all of us from musicians, board, staff, and Toshi — want to explore other avenues of orchestral music, besides the power and beauty of standard, classical orchestral repertoire.”

    Bailey references recent innovative ECSO programs that incorporated the New London Big Band, film music, experimental works using new technology, and lesser-known composers.

    “All of these elements both grow our audience and our orchestra's artistic and expressional range,” Bailey said. “It keeps our musicians excited for the newer works that we program each season, but also allows them to revisit the stalwart composers that our audiences love with fresh perspectives. It is truly a win/win to be able to program women, persons of color, modern, lesser-known composers each season, as it allows for a beautiful blend that enriches everyone's orchestral palette — and we're always so excited to hear how well these resonate with our audience.”

    Mark these on your calendar

    Following Saturday’s concert, here’s the rest of the ECSO season, with commentary from Shimada. All concerts take place at 7:30 p.m. in New London’s Garde Arts Center.

    NOVEMBER 18 — Dvořák and Bartók

    Chevalier — Overture to L’Amant Anonyme de Saint-Georges

    Dvořák — Violin Concerto (with guest soloist Hyung Joon Won on violin)

    Bartók — Concerto for Orchestra

    Shimada: “I’m delighted Hyung Joon Won is joining us. We discussed repertoire and he gave me three preferred choices. We’ve never performed the Dvořák here, so that made it a compelling choice.

    “But there’s a backstory. Won is a peace activist from South Korea. In 2018, I joined Won in the DMZ with members from the Yale Symphony and young musicians from across Asia. We were half a mile from the North Korean border and we played the Dvořák.” (Laughs) “We aimed the sound toward North Korea. But it was very emotional. We played in a former Army base, surrounded by mine fields so the guests had to be bussed in. It was televised nationally in South Korea. It’s an honor to help Won’s activism through music.

    “The Bartók piece is of course one of the heavy-duty selections, an old favorite. And it’s balanced at the start with the Chevalier piece. His mother was of African descent, a slave in Guadeloupe, and his father was a white soldier who took him to France. He became an expert fencer and musician and actually gave music lessons to Marie Antoinette. Mozart, some years younger, was reportedly quite jealous of him. So we have a lot of interesting context for this program.”

    JANUARY 27 — Mozart, Marx & Beethoven

    Mozart — Symphony No. 41 (Jupiter)

    Bill Marx — Double Harp Concerto (with guest harpists Colleen Potter Thorburn and Jaclyn Wappel)

    Beethoven — Violin Concerto (with guest soloist Jinyoung Yoon on violin)

    Shimada: “We have Mozart and Beethoven — and also Bill Marx, who was the adopted son of Harpo Marx. It’s a very nice piece, and two harpists in front of an orchestra is very unusual. We took great pleasure in creating this program.

    “Harpo Marx played harp, of course, and though he didn’t read music, his son would teach him pieces. I understand Bill showed his father this piece and Harpo learned and performed it.”

    FEBRUARY 24 — Sounds of Scotland

    Verdi — Overture to Macbeth

    MacCunn — The Land of the Mountain and the Flood

    Paul McCartney — Spiral

    Maxwell Davies — An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise (soloist Mike MacNintch on bagpipe)

    Mendelssohn — Symphony No. 3 (Scottish)

    Shimada: “Maxwell Davies wrote An Orkney Wedding with bagpipe in mind, and it will be very unusual and fun to have a bagpiper march to the stage. And we continue the Scottish flavor with Paul McCartney. He has a home in Scotland. He wants to be taken seriously as a classical composer and this is a very beautiful piece. Many would never expect a rock composer could do something like Spiral, but it’s a very fine work.”

    MARCH 30 — Mahler & Brahms

    Salvatore Di Vittorio — Sea Fanfare on a Theme by Monteverde

    Mahler — Songs of a Wayfarer (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen) (mezzo-soprano Ivy Walz, guest soloist)

    R. Strauss — Don Juan

    Brahms — Symphony No. 2 (pianist Gary Chapman and bagpiper Mike MacNintch, soloists)

    Shimada: “The Brahms and the Mahler are two pieces every musician should perform at an audition. They’re very difficult and, if you can’t play them, you shouldn’t play in an orchestra! (Laughs) So we’re showing off OUR orchestra. And Ivy Walz is just a wonderful mezzo-soprano for the Mahler. Oh, and we wanted to go very Italian with the Di Vittorio, which is based on Monteverde.”

    APRIL 27 – Haydn & Stravinsky Finale

    Haydn — Lord Nelson Mass (soloists Sarah Joyce Cooper, soprano; Ziwen Xiang, tenor; Eliam Ramos, bass)

    Dan Perttu — Phoenix

    Caroline Shaw — and the swallow

    Williams — Fawkes the Phoenix from Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets

    Stravinsky — Firebird Suite (1919)

    Shimada: “We wanted to feature Daniel McDavitt, the new director of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Chorus. He’s going to conduct the first half of the program — the chorus and the orchestra — and I know our audience will love him.

    “The second half of the program has a resurrection motif, which is important and appropriate for the time. We want to musically and psychologically uplift everyone, and the Firebird Suite is the perfect way to close the season. It’s a massive piece — requiring technical virtuosity — and of course (it has) that grandiose ending.”

    If you go

    Who: The Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra

    What: Open their 77th season with “Gershwin & Dixieland”

    When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

    Where: Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London

    How much: $35-$65, $12 under 40 or military, various discounts available for seniors

    For more information: ectsymphony.com, (860) 444-7373.

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