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ECSO kicks off 75th season in a big way

The staccato beginning of Beethoven's 5th Symphony — Dut-dut-dut-duh — is probably the most famous slice of classical music in the world. The foreboding riff's ubiquitous utilization across television and film, modern music, ringtones, popular culture and more, means even folks who can't spell Beethoven are familiar with "dut-dut-dut-duh."

The rest of the composition? Not so much. In fact, many casual listeners conceivably wonder if the piece is so named because Beethoven wasn't sure what the next note would BE.

"He's got the first four notes. What's the fifth?"

But, as any of the members of the nearly full house Saturday night in the Garde Arts Center knew or decidedly learned, courtesy of a primed and energized Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, there is indeed a triumphal and great deal more to the 5th Symphony. The work served as a dramatic finale to a wonderfully realized and hopeful program that kicked off a noteworthy season and included a world premiere revision of Polina Nazaykinskaya's Fenix and Haydn's Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major.

Anticipation

"I've missed this ensemble," said David Jacobs from Niantic, standing outside the Garde before the concert. He quickly explained he's on the board of directors of the Friends of the ECSO, but adds, "I grew up in New York City and the New York Philharmonic. And living here and seeing this orchestra over the years, I've been delighted by the quality. It measures up. It's good to be back at the Garde. I've missed the arts in a global sense — Broadway, Rangers hockey at Madison Square Garden, Goodspeed ... and I'm very much looking forward to hearing Beethoven's Fifth again. It's iconic."

As the houselights went down, ECSO executive director Caleb Bailey took the stage.

"This is already a landmark occasion marking our 75th anniversary, but this is also our first in-person performance in 18 months," he said, alluding to the effects of COVID.

Catherine Marrion, president of the ECSO Board, and New London Mayor Michael Passero also welcomed the audience before Toshiyuki "Toshi" Shimada, the orchestra's music director and conductor, spoke.

"It's nice to see you," Shimada said. "It's been a long time. We're glad to be all together making great music for the community and for you. The pandemic is not over, but we're here and onstage and ready to play for you."

Musical, ascending

Fenix, an orchestral poem retelling the age-old story of the great bird rising from the ashes, is a remarkably evocative and yearning piece. With faint echoes of Barber's Adagio for Strings in wave after wave of gently ascending and swirling melody, Fenix sonically described a cautious but determined journey of excitement and purpose. Ultimately, yes, the prevailing theme suggested a lift-off into flight toward a pleasant horizon.

The performance and composition drew protracted applause that swelled in volume when Shimada brought Nazaykinskaya, a native of Russia now living in New Haven, onstage for a well-deserved bow.

"We came for the Beethoven, but Fenix was astonishing!" said Stonington's Laura Farmelo, attending with her husband John. The couple are longtime subscribers to the ECSO after attending a concert years ago with friends.

"The quality of this orchestra is very high, and what Toshi has brought to an excellent ensemble is crucial," John Farmelo added.

Sound the trumpet

For the Haydn piece, ECSO principal trumpeter Tom Brown took soloist duty. In a tripartite work that was seemingly inspired as a way to explore the potential of the instrument after fingering valves were added to its original form, Haydn composed a piece that has plenty of thematic and literal back and forth between the whole orchestra and the trumpet.

In addition, the middle Adante section features a number of runs and rhythmic landscapes that provide the soloist an opportunity to shine within the thematic context of the piece as well as an individual. Brown, a member of the United States Coast Guard Band and leader of his own traditional jazz group, The Tom Brown 6, seized the opportunity in maximum fashion. Brown's is a rich, warm tone, and his facility with quick octave hops, intricate riffs and luxuriant sustain were enhanced by a perhaps indigenous sense of swing that teased just slightly outside the statis demands of the score. The musician delivered in a big way and, once again, an audience delighted to be back in the Garde listening to the ECSO responded with wild enthusiasm.

In the intermission that followed, Dave Pottie commented on Brown's work.

"He brought something really special to that, and the orchestra sounds really great tonight," he said.

The longtime publisher of Sound Waves, a regional music monthly typically focusing on rock, blues and roots, Pottie said he loves classical and all kinds of music and was attending the concert because he has friends in the ensemble.

"Sometimes they'll joke about my love of rock and blues, but I just tell them, 'Hey, you guys are in an 1800s cover band!" he added.

Here for the Fifth

New London residents Peter and Kathy Roberts, "making a night out of it" after dinner at Tony D's, were very complimentary of both the Fenix and the Haydn pieces, but were particularly looking forward to the Beethoven.

"We've seen the Hartford Symphony and the New York Philharmonic and have always enjoyed the ECSO," Peter Roberts said. "But, somehow, I've never seen the Fifth. I know it's been done a lot, but I still want to see and hear it performed."

Prior to conducting the composition, Shimada said, "The entire classical music world is mourning the loss of (renowned 92-year-old Dutch conductor) Bernard Haitink, who died two days ago. He was incredibly gifted and, personally, was a nice, gentle man to me. We'd like to dedicate this to him."

Shimada handled the dynamics and thematic metamorphosis of the Fifth, from its brooding start to its uplifting and celebratory conclusion, with steady-as-she-goes precision dramatically punctuated with a foot stomp or lean-into-a-gale body language. And the ensemble responded with passion and a visual delight that matched their attuned and empathetic playing.

The third section, with the cellos and double basses trading different passages, and the delicate pizzicato interlude deftly handled by the strings, was like God downshifting in preparation for the thrilling Allegro. With stately work from the piccolo, the whole orchestra charged into that stately recurring theme that makes every listener feels as though he or she has been crowned a monarch.

"THAT'S what I wanted!" Peter Roberts said as the orchestra was rewarded for an excellent evenings work by a tumultuous standing-O.

Yes, if it was Shimada's intent to use his gifted orchestra to interpret a program of new and old works to reflect positivity in defiance of a grim world, he more than succeeded.

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