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    Tuesday, March 05, 2024

    Review: ECSO shows its pluck with unusual harp concerto

    New London -- The Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra always seems to trot out at least one surprise every concert, but on Saturday evening there were at least two that grabbed the audience by the ears at the Garde Arts Center.

    The most obvious surprise involved the second piece of the evening, the Double Harp Concerto by Bill Marx, the adopted son of Harpo Marx, the silent member of the Marx Brothers comedy team who was best known for playing the stringed instrument for which he was named. After all, there are very few harp concertos in the repertoire, and this one, which hadn’t been performed since its premiere with the Santa Fe Symphony 35 years ago, may be the only one featuring two harps center stage.

    The second surprise turned out to be the violin playing of diminutive Jinyoung Yoon, the 25-year-old winner of the ECSO’s 2023 Instrumental Competition, who combined sensitivity and power in the concert finale, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, winning three standing ovations.

    The harp concerto proved a delight in the hands of soloists Colleen Potter Thorburn and Jaclyn Wappel. Playing with a smallish orchestra probably didn’t hurt, as the light sound of the harp shone through even with the full ensemble playing.

    The piece itself was a tour de force for the two soloists who had to navigate the complexity of playing together at times as one unit, and then at other times in individual turns. It was certainly good to see an instrument best known for providing atmospheric delights from time to time taking center stage, showing what it can do, and there were stretches of beautiful music along the way that made this work a real find, if not as tuneful as Mozart and Beethoven.

    The Beethoven concerto may not be the most taxing in the repertoire for violin soloists, but it certainly has its moments, and Yoon was up to the task with her delicate phrasing and lightning quick hands. She seemed to gather more steam as the piece went on, digging into the notes with grace and strength during the final cadenza while keeping the audience in her thrall.

    The ECSO played marvelously, as usual, particularly the string section that has become one of its real strengths. The interplay between soloist and orchestra was well controlled thanks to the conducting of Toshiyuki Shimada, who always seems to set the perfect tempo.

    The initial piece on the evening was perhaps Mozart’s most famous symphony, No. 41, known as “Jupiter.” Again performed with a small orchestra of only four brass players and four woodwinds, the piece had an intimate feeling akin to an early music performance, yet managed to convey the grace and grandeur of Mozart’s conception with perfectly timed changes in dynamics and tempo.

    For a New London audience who had to get to the concert while navigating the torn-up area where the First Congregational Church had stood for more than a century and a half until it collapsed suddenly on Thursday, it was heartening to see that great music can still withstand the test of time. And great playing can bring it to life.

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