Rising star lights up the ECSO

Caroline Goulding
The Day

By Milton Moore

The Garde Arts Center was packed Saturday night, both onstage and off, as the appreciative audience savored the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra's performance of two staples of the repertoire served up anew, sizzling with fresh life.

Under the baton of Music Director Toshi Shimada, the ECSO concert gave proof that the old works are forever young in the right hands. This second concert of the 2011-12 season was built around two major pieces: Mendelssohn's crowd-pleasing Violin Concerto in E minor and Berlioz' always odd and endlessly entertaining big-orchestra showpiece, his Symphonie Fantastique.

A large measure of the concert's youth was provided by violin soloist Caroline Goulding, a 19-year-old Cleveland native whose lighter-than-air romp through the Mendelssohn mesmerized and energized the large audience.

Fresh off a Grammy nomination and a 2011 Avery Fisher Career Grant and playing a 1720 Stradivarius, Goulding arrived with glowing advance notices. Wearing a blue satiny dress, Goulding was a bit overwrought and unfocused in the concerto's opening exposition, but once she settled in with the ensemble, she drew a knowing musical line through the concerto, with a silvery, luminous tone and brilliant virtuosity that seemed to dance above the technical challenges.

Mendelssohn placed a scored cadenza at the heart of the first movement, and here Goulding was all artistry, as she reached for the high note at the end of each searching phrase with a delicacy that left the sound deliciously hanging in the air. She emerged from the cadenza into the cantabile lyrical theme with a gorgeous tapered phrasing that would carry through the andante. In this slow movement, Goulding drew on sensitive dynamics that rose and fell with a breath-like voice in this song without words, especially lovely in the closing reverie for violin and wind chorale.

Goulding used a light bow and effervescent mood through the perpetual motion of the final movement, cast very much in the elfin lightness of Mendelssohn's early scherzos. As she spun out an airy filigree of roulades and scales, Shimada flashed a broad grin of pure pleasure in her direction. She turned up the volume for a well-focused and strong coda, and the crowd roared in delight– as enthusiastic an ovation as any ECSO soloist has received in recent seasons.

Goulding's talent offers great promise, and at 19, she is still a work in progress. Her stage presence needs some refinement: often bent at the knees and bobbing and weaving like a boxer, she exuded an aggressive tension that contradicted the lyricism and lightness of her playing. But the blend of musicianship with virtuosity displayed Saturday should carry her far.

The program opened with the short, Gershwin knock-off of Franz Waxman's score for "The Philadelphia Story," one of the film scores included in each ECSO program this year, which featured bluesy alto sax solos by Jeff Emerich. And it moved through a terse reading of Brahms' dramatic Tragic Overture before ending with the sonic (and programmatic) drama of the Symphonie Fantastique.

This 1830 work all but launched 19th century musical Romanticism. Berlioz mustered a huge musical force, the largest orchestra to date, and abandoned the standard four-movement symphonic form and introduced the concept of a thematic leitmotifto animate his detailed written program of love, longing and nightmares of death and demons. Bizarre in its day, SymphonieFantastique still delights in its oddity – where else will you hear an isolated quintet of an English horn and four timpanists within a symphony?

Shimada kept this mercurial score, full of unexpected twists, sudden pauses and strangely accented sectional counterpoint, fully focused, especially in the colorful thematic witches' brew of the final pages. The violin sections, called on for prolonged forceful tremolos, frenetic outbursts and col legno bowing (beating strings with the wood of the bow for skeletal effects), rose to the many challenges, as did the cellos and basses, called on to growl and provide strange accents in this sonic bestiary.

The ECSO's wind voices were lovely in the two calm inner movements, including flutist Nancy Chaput, English hornist Olav van Hezewijk and oboist Anne Megan (in her offstage duet to open the pastoral), and clarinetists Kelli O'Conner and Chantal Hovendick. The brass, spiced with a pair of coronet-a-piston, provided the sonic punch in the two dramatic final movements, and tuba players Gary Sienkewicz and Gary Buttery received the first bow from Shimada.

It was a thrilling performance, all the more impressive for the beautiful unfolding of the pastoral movement amidst all the fervor. Just as the concerto was a showpiece for Goulding's artistry, this strange and entrancing symphony gave Shimada and the ECSO a stage for its mastery in its parts and as a whole.