By Rick Koster-The Day
Publish October 21,2015 3:45PM
Updated October 22,2015 6:20PM
The word “classical” has obvious connections to antiquity and suggests a carved-in-marble sense of established quality — whether alluding to architecture, education or, as with the popular instrumental acoustic guitar hit, “Gas.”
But the most immediate and significant association is “classical music” — with all that implies: centuries’ worth of stern-visage’d and powder-wigged composers feverishly scrawling musical notations on lamp-lit parchment; hand-crafted violins, church organs, cellos and harpsichords; and cherished, immortal symphonies, liturgical vocal rounds, operas, fugues, works for string quartets or of atonal minimalism, concertos, and coronation marches.
There is much glory in the history — and yet, as recognized by the folks at the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, classical music must embrace the present and future even as it celebrates the past.
As the ECSO prepares to embark on its 2015-16 season Saturday with their “A Hero’s Life” concert — featuring works by Beethoven, Mozart and Strauss and guest clarinetist David Shifrin — this expansive focus is quite literal. The organization has a new executive director, 29-year-old Caleb Bailey, assuming the stewardship so ably nuanced by Isabelle Singer, who retired last summer after three-plus decades. Prior to his appointment, Bailey was executive director of the Lincoln Symphony Orchestra in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“I’ve really been enjoying Caleb’s youth and energy, and he’s very wise and mature. He knows this business very well,” says music director/conductor Toshiyuki “Toshi” Shimada. “The first day he arrived, he was ready to go and I feel very good about him taking the orchestra to the next chapter. It’s an exciting time with a lot of opportunities that we’re exploring together, and I feel energized.”
“New London and southeastern Connecticut have made us feel so welcome,” Bailey says. “One of the things that made the job so attractive — along with the quality of the orchestra — was Toshi’s artistic vision. He’s flexible and very willing to experiment. This is going to be a fun partnership and we are dedicated to the development of the orchestra — how to push it to the next level, maintain established connections within the community, and develop new connections.”
Aesthetically, this melding of the past and the future is reflected in the season’s programming. Over the course of six concerts (see the season schedule), Shimada, with wit and vision, has crafted presentations that boast immortal and popular favorites, including plenty of Romantic works as well as lesser-known pieces and efforts by modern composers including Duffy (“Heart throb”), Chabrier (“Espana”) and Morricone (“Gabriel’s Oboe”).
“The Romantic period lasted over a century,” Shimada says, “and we in the classical community tend to perform a lot of the much-loved works. We have that. But we also want to bring out some of the not-so-familar pieces like Kalinnikov’s Symphony No. 1. I think people will hear it and want to know more.”
The season also includes “shuffle concerts,” a concept Toshimada instituted last season, inspired by the fluctuation, popularity and quick-hit nature of iPod playlists.
“The reaction (to the shuffle concerts) was very positive,” Shimada says. “The reality is, today, it’s very difficult for a lot of people to sit and listen to a 60- or 80-minute piece of music. We had very few complaints from our traditional audience and a lot of enthusiasm from younger audiences — and that’s ideal because we’re trying to expand our appeal. How do we develop the symphony orchestra to connect with contemporary tastes?”
It doesn’t get any more contemporary than the presentation, during the March 19 concert, of Rautavaara’s “Concerto for Birds and Orchestra,” a multi-media piece that incorporates recordings of fowls in nature.
“That one’s actually from the 20th century,” Shimada laughs. “It’s hard to believe we’re already into a new century, but the piece does reflect that we’re looking at multi-media and the idea of video projection and other ideas.”
A huge part of the orchestra’s goal of moving into the future is to nurture and expand their role in the community. In addition to the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Youth Orchestra and youth instrumental competitions, the ECSO helps out in various music school programs through 23 concerts in town across the region. Too, Bailey and Shimada are exploring ways to provide affordable ticket access to families, first responders and veterans, to name a few.
“We have to connect to the community in new ways,” Bailey says. “New London is a very multi-faceted community, and so is the region. There are so many towns woven together in unique fashion to create southeastern Connecticut. It can make it difficult to find ways to reach out — but for those very reasons it’s very exciting and presents a lot of opportunities.”
This commitment to outreach is literally and symbolically represented by Saturday’s “A Hero’s Life” program. The “Leonore Overture no. 3,” from Beethoven’s only opera, “Fidelio,” tells the story of Leonore, disguised as a prison guard, attempting to liberate her husband from a political prison.
“I thought, wouldn’t it be great to use Beethoven’s hero theme as a way of honoring out own heroes?” Shimada says. “We’re inviting some police officers and fire department personnel and military people to the performance as a salute to their efforts. We want this to be the start of collaboration and a way to carry on and grow into the future. It’s a worthy dialogue about what makes a hero.”
Bailey and Shimada also want the ECSO to actively work with health causes. They’re honoring Breast Cancer Awareness Month and, in February, will focus on heart-health awareness. “The people battling and conquering these illnesses are heroes, too,” Bailey says.
“Music is art, yes, and entertainment,” Shimada says, “but in very real ways, it is also therapy.”