Article published Sep 27, 2010
Past and present come alive at Eastern Connecticut Symphony
By Milton Moore Day Staff Writer
New London - What better way to end a balmy, outdoorsy Saturday than with Beethoven's
pastoral landscape in sound? What better motto for the turmoil of the coming elections than
Lincoln's words: "We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country"?
The timeliness of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra's season-opening selections
served proof of good music's enduring immediacy.
ECSO Music Director Toshi Shimada led the orchestra and a pair of solo performers at the Garde
Arts Center through an entertaining and at times riveting performance that spanned 200 years
and three continents' worth of expression. And it all worked, both in its parts and as a whole.
Shimada, oddly enough, did not address his audience Saturday, but he was at his most animated
as he led this musical journey. The evening began with a spirited and sharp reading of Suppé's
"Poet and Peasant" Overture, before letting the audience settle back to enjoy an unhurried and
affectionate performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, his "Pastorale Symphony." It's an
unusual concert that moves a Beethoven symphony out of the finale, but Shimada proved he
knew what he was doing.
The second half began with the sonic and visual excitement of soloist Naoko Takada swooping
over a huge, five-octave marimba in Keiko Abe's 1995 Prism Rhapsody. Then Shimada trumped
Beethoven by ending with a powerful reading of Copland's 1942 "Lincoln Portrait" that traveled
from the achingly poignant austerity of its melancholic opening - with the muted trumpet of
principal Julia Caruk seemingly echoing across a wind-swept plain - to its heroic conclusion, its
small three-note motif grown huge to frame Lincoln's words, vividly narrated by my colleague at
The Day, Chuck Potter.
Shimada drew the Copland in high relief, from the spare first measures that the composer
described as evoking mystery and fatality, through the rough-hewn Stephen Foster dances, to
the powerful juxtaposition of Lincoln's words against the portentous crescendos that animated
them with grandeur. Potter's resonant bass voice rang through the hall, and he deftly changed his
timbre just enough to differentiate between the narration and Lincoln's own words. Shimada used
his left hand to cue the narrator, and text and music meshed smoothly even when Potter had to
pause for a musical phrase. The effect was theatrical, musical and stirring.
The evening's other soloist, Takada on the marimba, delighted the audience with sounds seldom
heard in orchestral settings. Abe's Prism Rhapsody is full of wide, at times explosive, dynamics,
yet Takada glided over it all, at times evoking murmuring tremolos and at times a powerful
percussive ostinato. A small woman, she took nearly four steps to move the length of the concert
marimba, as she hovered over the keys in perpetual motion with two or three mallets in each
hand. In mid-piece, as she flew across the instrument, a hairpiece she wore came unpinned and
flew off her, an unscripted bit of visual drama amid all the hubbub.
When he came out to lead the Copland, Shimada took a bow, turned to face the orchestra - and
reached up with both hands to check that his hair was in place. As the audience roared, he said,
Both the Abe and the Copland were propelled by the percussion and brass sections. But the
Beethoven was longest work on the program, showcasing the core string and wind sections. This
simplest utterance of Beethoven's output, once described as starting with bliss and then
expanding upon it, is full of hidden complexities. But the sectional play was strong, especially in
the cellos and winds, and hanging on the soft cadences that each seemed to renew the luxurious
sense of reverie, Shimada kept time at bay. The music flowed like the burbling brook portrayed in
the second movement, where bassoonist Rebecca Noreen's rich voice merged with the cellos in a
long arch like an endless summer day.
Review: Shimada knows the score with ECSO
By Milton Moore
Publication: The DayPublished 01/25/2010 12:00 AM Updated 01/25/2010 06:19 AM
New London - At the start of Saturday's Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra concert, the fourth under new
Music Director Toshi Shimada, the conductor asked the audience at the Garde Arts Center for a mid-term grade.
In the audience's programs, Shimada said, there's a questionnaire, one that focused on audience response to
his programming of music new to this audience. "I'm wondering what you're thinking," Shimada said.The crowd
immediately replied with applause.
Shimada then proceeded to conduct a spirited and revelatory program of three works that spanned centuries and
once again proved that he has lifted the orchestra to a new level. His conducting reveals the myriad voices in
each work, a sonic transparency that never feels fussy, while retaining a keen sense of the overall shape and
effect of long spans of composition.
In the evening's big sonic work, Stravinsky's 1947 Suite from "Petrouchka," it seemed that each principal in the
orchestra was a star, as the mercurial orchestration spotlighted an obbligato for virtually every instrument amid
its cross-cutting meters and rhythmic bustle. In the programmatic counterpoint to Stravinsky, Haydn's 1795
Symphony No. 104, the "London Symphony," Shimada led a pared-down, Classical-era sized ensemble in a
beautifully phrased and paced performance that mined all the wit, tunefulness and pure pleasure Haydn offers.
Between these stylistic bookends, he used a smaller orchestra still - just 28 pieces - for Ibert's 1935 concerto for
chamber orchestra and alto saxophone, the Concertino da Camera. The soloist in this very French, very Jazz Age
work was ECSO Instrumental Composition Contest winner Stephen Charles Page Jr., who traversed its
cascades of sixteenth notes and the sax's wide register, from its guttural basement to its upper oboe territory,
with a playful ease. In the bluesy opening to the second movement, his honeyed tone and supple phrasing, with
no apparent attack to any note, transformed the theater hall with a late-night jazz club spell.
The opening performance of the London Symphony, which Shimada called his "tribute to New London," basked
in the charms of the Classical era, a period overlooked for nearly a decade by the former music director. The
small orchestra - with just four cellos - was at its best, the string sections responding beautifully to Shimada's
fine sense of phrasing. The andante slow movement was both delicate and rhythmically sharp - no small feat -
and as the surprising modulations at its center dropped into an emotive minor, Shimada threw back his
shoulders and spread his arms, as if swan diving into its depths.
The concluding Stravinsky suite, for all of its sizzle, is woven of thin cloth, with a handful of motifs that reappear
again and again. It succeeds on its rhythmic energy and on the musicians' virtuosity as the score's spotlight
moves from section to section - and Saturday, it was a success indeed.
Shimada kept the polyrhythms brewing, creating a sense of ostinato as its unifying character. He drew on all of its
sonic power, especially the nearly sub-sonic rumblings from the large bass section, the contrabassoon and that
most Russian basso profundo of instruments, the bass clarinet.
Virtually all of the principals had fine moments, often paired or in trios. Flutist Nancy Chaput, oboist Anne Megan,
pianist Gary Chapman, bassoonist Tracy McGinnis, English hornist Olav van Hezewijk, trumpeter Julia Caruk,
and concertmaster Stephan Tieszen all earned their bows.
The sound world was luxurious, from muted brass ensembles to bass clarinet and clarinet doubling to create a
box organ effect. The one flaw was the use of an electronic keyboard for the celeste, which sounded far more like
a synth than the sparkling chimes of the true instrument.
Article published Nov 16, 2009
Review: A starry night for the ECSO
New London - Saturday evening's concert by the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra was a tribute to
Music director Toshi Shimada fronted a big orchestra bristling with percussionists, led three works that took very
different approaches to create a sense of the monumental, and collaborated with the biggest name soloist the
ECSO has presented in many a year.
The soloist was pianist Peter Serkin - he of musical royalty, the son of pianist Rudolf Serkin and grandson of
violinist Adolf Busch - who lived up to his billing with a bravura performance of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1.
The tall, patrician Serkin, at the peak of his artistic powers at age 62, was commanding as he traversed the
scope of this most Romantic of Brahms' major works, alternately explosively forceful and entrancingly
This is a concert piece that is fueled more by emotion and the quality of expression than by virtuosity, a concerto
that was recast from piano sonatas and has far less a sense of soloist and accompaniment than most. Younger
soloists could have learned much by watching Serkin and Shimada interact, as they kept close watch on each
other and shared the pulse of the work's give-and-take.
In the big two-handed chords that propel the outer movements, Serkin fairly vibrated with energy, especially in the
first movement, which Shimada took at a brisk pace and shook off any traces of gloom from its portentous
orchestral opening. But most arresting was Serkin's treatment of the hushed, lyrical second theme, as he
intensified the drama by hanging off the beat, creating the sense that he was drifting away in his own reverie,
while never losing the thread of ensemble.
That mood was redoubled in the slow movement, which opened with a lush sonority in the strings and bassoons
before Serkin wove a poetic solo so intimate that audience members in the Garde Arts Center must have felt as if
they were eavesdropping.
The final movement, the most conventional of the three with its rondo form for pianistic variety, was all dashing
excitement. Here, Serkin and Shimada were in constant interplay - on Serkin's return to the expansive second
motif, Shimada beamed at him from the podium like a proud father. The mood of collaboration was confirmed
when, after a sustained final ovation, Serkin walked around the orchestra to shake hands with the key front desk
Sharing the spotlight in the two other big works on the program were the sonic yin and yang of flutist Nancy
Chaput and timpanist Kuljit Rehncy.
The program opened with "blue cathedral," a 1999 tone poem by American composer Jennifer Higdon, the most-
performed contemporary work in the U.S. these days. A tribute to the composer's brother, who died in youth, it is
built on two singing voices - that of the composer, as voiced by flutist Chaput, and her brother, voiced by clarinet
principal Kelli O'Connor.
The Copland-like work started with these two voices over softly sighing strings, and it built in layers of sound,
reaching a vibrant sonority as the five percussionists (three playing the chimes together at one point) and
timpanist Rehncy joined with a brass chorale. And the orchestral color drifted into new territory in the moving
closing measures, as the clarinet seemingly ascended to the heavens over the soft rustle of 50 quiet Chinese
bells in the hands of the string players and the eerie hum of glass harmonicas (wine glasses rubbed to vibrate)
in the hands of the brass section.
Chaput had the starring role in the program's central piece, Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes
by Weber, a 1943 work written while the German composer was the head of the music department at Yale, where
Shimada now teaches.
Shimada was at his finest leading this four-movement work, keeping it light on its feet and, as is becoming his
trademark here, transparent in the complex voicings of the intricate sectional interplay. Hindemith brews up a
thick contrapuntal stew in much of it, but Shimada never bogged down.
Chaput shined brightly in the complex, long flute obbligato ending the slow movement, a fleet and long-breathed
passage that lit up the hall. And Rehncy and the percussionists put on a great show of musicianship as they took
a set of variations from the energetic and playful scherzo and made them sing.
It was an entertaining, at times thrilling, evening. Shimada continues to win audience trust in his first season
here; both the contemporary work and the potential quagmire of Hindemith were vivid, fresh and well-received.
And the appreciative audience gave a long ovation to one member of the ECSO who has yet to pick up an
Orchestra Executive Director Isabelle Singer was honored at intermission for her 25th anniversary of keeping the
orchestra on stage and thriving. Now on her fourth music director here, Singer gets to take much of the credit for
ECSO board president Paul McGlinchey put it succinctly as he gestured to the orchestra: "What you see here on
the stage, our new music director Toshi Shimada, all these talented musicians … the common thread is Isabelle