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    Sunday, May 19, 2024

    The kids are alright: ECSO, Garde present ‘Young People’s Concert’

    School children play their recorders along with the orchestra Tuesday, April 23, 2024, during the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra’s annual Young People's Concert at the Garde Arts Center in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    The orchestra performs a song with the notes on the screen for school children to play along with their recorder instruments, Tuesday, April 23, 2024, during the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra's annual Young People's Concert at the Garde Arts Center in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Conductor Toshiyuki Shimada talks to school children Tuesday, April 23, 2024, during the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra's annual Young People's Concert at the Garde Arts Center in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    J Hunter Group, a local jazz band, performs during the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra's annual Young People's Concert Tuesday, April 23, 2024, at the Garde Arts Center in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Some say these are tough times for arts organizations. But don’t try to tell that to the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, whose musicians’ ranks swelled to around 1,100 members Tuesday morning in New London’s Garde Arts Center.

    The roster boost came courtesy of the ECSO’s annual Young People's Concert. Technically speaking, the new “musicians” were elementary school students from across the region who were by definition attending and watching a performance by the orchestra, the seven-piece J Hunter Band jazz group, and musical hosts Robert Frost and Alizay Ibette. But the interactive and participatory nature of the event meant that everyone in the packed venue was part of the show.

    The title of this year’s production was “The Orchestra Swings,” the theme of which was to differentiate between the straight rhythm typically demanded of classical music and the looser swing feel of jazz — with an emphasis that the two styles are very much compatible.

    “What’s cool about this is that you’ve got students, many of them for the first time, seeing an event like this,” said Caleb Bailey, ECSO executive director, who was standing in the Garde lobby as yellow school buses pulled up on State Street and a processional of kids made its way into the theater. “But it’s not just a classical music concert. They’re seeing the orchestra, a jazz band and learning how those ensembles are organized and the music works together. And they get to take part.”

    The Young People’s Concerts series is a partnership between the ECSO, the Garde and Carnegie Hall Weill Music Institute, the latter of which not only provides grant support but also formats and scripts the programs. The first Young People’s Concert in New London took place in 2019, but continuity was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

    The series returned last year and, Bailey said, plans are to continue it on an annual basis. He also credited the Bodenwein Foundation, Community Foundation of Eastern CT, Chelsea Groton Foundation, Dime Bank Foundation, the George A. and Grace L. Long Foundation, and private ECSO donors for making the event possible.

    Students attended from Montville, Waterford, New London, Norwich, Groton, Griswold, Lebanon, Canterbury (Classical Conversations) and Niantic.

    As teachers led classes into the Garde, many passed a lobby performance by the Three O’Clock Jazz Band — an outfit comprising students from New London’s Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School under the direction of Tony Rodriguez — as they swung through a series of tunes like “Jungle Boogie,” “Take Five” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing.”

    The incoming kids regarded Three O’Clock with a bit of dazzled uncertainty, and one youth was heard to ask, “Is this them?”

    “We’re here to inspire an even younger generation,” Rodriguez said. “It hasn’t been that long since we were that age.”

    Teighan Weirath, a baritone sax player for the group and student at Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School, once attended a Young Person’s Concert at the Garde and said, “It’s fun to see it now from the other side.”

    In the hall proper, heightened excitement was reflected in conversational cacophony as teachers got students settled in their seats. Standing unnoticed at the rear by the soundboard, with his hands in his tuxedo pockets, Toshiyuki Shimada, the conductor and music director of the ECSO, smiled broadly and offered a shake of his head to a visitor.

    “It’s wild, isn’t it?” he asked. “They’re so full of energy. This is one of the most important concerts of the year for us because” ― he gestured at the rapidly filling hall ― “this is our future. So we take steps to present music they’ll remember. And it’s exciting for us because it makes us remember when we first heard music in that way where it truly connected.”

    Watching from the stage, bassist Jim Hunter, leader of the J Hunter Band and also a member of the ECSO, said he’s played at each of the Garde Young People’s concerts, and that it’s always an encouraging experience.

    “We like doing these because it’s one way for us to pass the torch to the young folks,” Hunter said. “You know, you wonder if and hope they’re going to listen, but you’re not sure. Then the music starts and the heads stop swiveling back and forth and they stop talking to each other. All eyes are on the stage, and you think, yeah, they ARE listening.”

    Running about 50 minutes, the song performances were broken up by smoothly interjected examinations of various orchestral and jazz components ― brass, woodwinds, percussion, strings, vocals, rhythm sections, keyboards, and so on ― and how they interlock.

    Frost and Ibette, whose singing and between song instructional banter served to educate as well as entertain, brought Shimada and J Hunter keyboardist Rufus Davis into the conversation to illustrate their respective groups’ approach and focus.

    The material — most of which was probably unfamiliar but which nonetheless went over in a big way — included Florence Price’s “Juba,” Duke Ellington’s “Duke’s Place” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” and the traditional and show-closing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

    As for the kids, whether playing recorders ― seemingly the school-provided instrument of choice ― singing, dancing, shouting out at call-and-response directives or simply swaying in their seats, the third, fourth and fifth graders seemed completely comfortable with and fascinated by the professionals onstage.

    Mila Fish, a third grader at Samuel Huntington School in Norwich, said, “This was actually pretty cool. I’m into music and this was the best. I think I want to play an instrument.”

    Fish’s teacher, Sabrina Pasquarelli, added, “This is a wonderful experience in general, but particularly because a lot of kids are exposed to music at a level they may not get to have otherwise. That means so much.”

    As the concert ended to enthusiastic applause, Bailey said, “Man, I loved seeing this. They have so much enthusiasm for life and the music. There’s a lot of possibility. These are admirable traits.”

    r.koster@theday.com

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