New London — The Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra opened its 66th season Saturday night at The Garde Arts Center with a stirring performance of a pair of major works and a performance by a major star.
Audience expectations ran high for piano soloist Peter Frankl, who was in town to perform Brahms’ vast Piano Concerto No. 2 for the 100th time in his illustrious career, and he did not disappoint. At age 77, the Hungarian-born pianist embraced the score like an old friend.
ECSO Music Director Toshi Shimada kept a sure sense of direction and brisk pacing through the 45-minute concerto, the most through-composed and audience pleasing of all Brahms’ major orchestral works, and Frankl seemed to feed off the energy. In the powerful opening allegro, he stamped his foot for emphasis as the rhapsodic central theme grew in his hands, and he all but fell off the bench as he leaned to maintain eye contact with Shimada. This grand movement, alternately solemn, heroic and endearingly warm, grown huge from the three-note opening horn motif first intoned by principal Dana Lord, was pushed forward crisply by Shimada, while Frankl at times chose to linger with tantalizing phrasing.
The concerto’s major horn passages were played subsequently by Coast Guard Band member Brian Nichols, but the orchestra member ordained by Brahms to take the spotlight was cello principal Alvin Wong, as the novel, four-movement concerto seems to begin its andante as a cello concerto. And in this slow movement, the moments of magic were found.
After a scherzo movement that crackled with energy, Wong opened the andante with a soothing richness in its serene theme, which sang in his cello until Frankl entered, the role of the piano not so much to expand the theme, but to comment on it. Here, Frankl was rapt, hunched over his hands with an unhurried, almost meditative approach. On this 100th performance, he gave the sense of a very personal, very deep communion with the score, and it suddenly felt like a moment to treasure.
This testing piano part was not without some awkward moments, and ensemble wavered for the final coda. But Frankl thrilled the Garde audience with a sense of mastery, moments of intimacy and a full-body involvement with a vast musical monument.
The program started with a work by a composer who got to take a bow, an ECSO trend for which we must thank Shimada. The season opened with a sonically scintillating 13-minute piece called “Atlantic Riband” written by Kenneth Fuchs, a professor of composition at the University of Connecticut. This Copland-esque piece, with echoes of “Lincoln Portrait,” took variants of a scrap of a theme through a sound tour of the orchestra, at times blustery and at times haunting, such as when English horn principal Olav van Hezewijk played over tolling tubular bells. The theme variants piled up in a thrilling contrapuntal swirl for a satisfying finale.
The truncated second half of the program featured selections from Berlioz’ epic “Roméo et Juliette,” program music much like his Symphonie fantastique, but not so much a literal narrative as a musical evocation of the play’s themes. And here, Shimada earned his stripes.
Berlioz’ scoring is nothing if not odd — odd voicings, odd entrances and odd approaches to sectional counterpoint. From the weirdly hyperkinetic opening fugue, through the fragile sectional harmonies of the love scene, to the raucous “Great Festival” finale, the chorale of trombones, tuba and brass soaring above a boiling cauldron of sound, Shimada kept the forces focused and allowed the lyricism to flower.
Then, he got to ham it up on the podium, dancing and swaying along to an encore that a generation of Americans first heard in a Bugs Bunny cartoon: Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5. The audience clapped along and left smiling.