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Symphony Season Preview Symphony season preview

November 11, 2018

Southwestern Connecticut has no shortage of orchestras: six orchestras from New Haven down through Greenwich fill their local communities with passionate and dedicated music making.

“That’s the amazing thing, Connecticut’s legacy for supporting music, all these orchestra offering different listening experiences,” says Jonathan Yates, music director of the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra. “I think we have more orchestras per capita than any other state. It’s a very special environment for the arts and for music.”

The hardest part about programming a season? Narrowing down the options, a feeling shared among area music directors. None of the orchestras has the extensive performance schedules of big-budget symphonies. Yet careful choices reveal seasons full of the classics, collaborations with dramatic potential and creative programming with timely themes and evocative new works.

This season celebrates everything from the civil rights movement and composer Leonard Bernstein’s centennial to the 50th anniversary of NASA’s moon landing.

“I just love it when someone comes in and is willing to be open enough to possibly be moved by something they weren’t expecting,” says Greater Bridgeport Symphony’s music director Eric Jacobsen. “And I think it’s kind of a metaphor for empathy in this world.”

In addition, listeners will say goodbye to music director William Boughton of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra while embracing Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra’s newest music director Yuga Cohler, all while the Stamford Symphony searches for its next leader.

Here’s what to expect from each orchestra this season.

Greenwich Symphony

Greenwich Symphony’s season furthers its mission to spotlight rising talent on the solo circuit with two dynamic young violinists. On Nov. 17 and 18, the 25-year-old American rising star William Hagen, a prize-winner in the 2015 Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition, performs the marathon Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, a concerto that broke with classical conventions by barreling through its movements without pauses. French violinist Chloe Kiffer, who first met longtime music director David Gilbert when performing a concerto under his baton at Carnegie Hall in 2015, helps close out the season on April 13 and 14, 2019, with the fiery Dvořák Violin Concerto.

Established talent is also on the roster, such as Hungarian pianist Peter Toth, performing Hungarian works on Jan. 26 and 27, and trumpet player Ryan Anthony on Feb. 23 and 24. The same concert also features a recent addition: African American mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford, whose “phenomenal” performance captured Gilbert’s ear in a recent concert of the Harlem Chamber Players.

Along with an international display of music, ranging from Armenian, Spanish, Russian, and Hungarian music, alongside German-Viennese greats, living American composers also make their mark. The symphony’s own bass player Jeff Levine presents an original composition on Feb. 23 and 24. The 101-year-old composer Anton Coppola, the uncle of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, will have his pastiche work “Fa-Fa-Do”— Francis Ford’s initials in musical pitch — performed April 13 and 14 and is likely to make an in-person appearance for the concert.

Stamford Symphony

Stamford Symphony continues to flirt with guest conductors this season in hopes of landing a long-term relationship for music director. Suitors include conductor and composer Lucas Richman, who received a 2011 Grammy Award for Best Classical Crossover Album. He’ll conduct a concert version of Gershwin’s bluesy, English-language opera “Porgy and Bess” on Feb. 9 and 10 with the Greenwich Choral Society in honor of Black History Month, in addition to other opera favorites.

Michael Stern, the Kansas City conductor who just finished conducting “The Red Violin” film score with violinist Joshua Bell at the New York Philharmonic, will lead four of the orchestra’s principal player leading ladies in Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin, cello, oboe, and bassoon on March 9 and 10.

Broadway conducting master Ted Sperling, currently conducting the pit orchestra for the Lincoln Center production of “My Fair Lady” and who was the 2005 Tony and Drama Desk award winner for his orchestration of “Light in the Piazza,” conducts a night of classic and iconic movie music on Jan. 19. Rising conductor Vladimir Kulenovic finishes off the season leading award-winning Italian pianist Federico Colli in Tchaikovsky’s stately First Piano Concerto and the impassioned Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 on April 13 and 14.

But before the music director auditions continue, Andrés Cárdenes will do double duty conducting Vivaldi’s evergreen “Four Seasons” from the violin on Nov. 10 and 11.

Norwalk Symphony Orchestra

In celebration of Bernstein’s centennial, the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra’s season presents a recently created and rarely heard concert version of Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” a chance to hear the cross-cultural lovers Tony and Maria croon to a full orchestra on Feb. 23. Due to the performing rights for the work, concertgoers worldwide could only either see the full show or hear a condensed instrumental version prior to only a few years ago. Actors and singers from the New Paradigm Theatre of Stamford perform with the symphony.

And that’s not the only collaboration of the season. The New England Academy of Dance straps on ballet shoes for the orchestra’s holiday extravaganza called Bach to Pops on Dec. 15 that includes Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Snowflakes” from “The Nutcracker.” Additionally, dancers and the young musicians of the Norwalk Youth Symphony pair up for a concert alongside the Norwalk Symphony on March 17 in a dramatic performance of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” the musical tale of youthful overconfidence that features the orchestra’s instruments as characters in the plot.

The orchestra will also perform twice with the Mendelssohn Choir of Connecticut, first for a performance of Bach’s “Magnificat” on Dec. 15 and again for the season’s showstopper, Beethoven’s historic final symphony, the ninth, on May 18 that celebrates the 80th anniversary of the Norwalk Symphony.

Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra

This is Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra’s first full season with trendsetting Yuga Cohler at the helm. Cohler brings his Juilliard training and a prize-winning resume to Ridgefield along with a knack for connecting dots between disparate musical styles, evidenced by a celebrated program he created for the Young Musicians Foundation in Los Angeles that fused Beethoven with rapper Kayne West.

With his finger on the pulse of the current, Cohler conducts a work for the December 1 concert by contemporary bassist and composer Michael Thurber called “Love Letter,” a concerto for violinist Tessa Lark that zigzags between genres such as jazz, hip-hop, rock, and Americana fiddling. Well-loved ultra-romantic works of Tchaikovsky and Brahms sandwich the contemporary concerto.

The March 1 concert is a commentary on high art from a Respighi musical triptych depicting three works by Renaissance painter Botticelli to Webern’s difficult Six Pieces for Orchestra that aimed to channel the great German art music tradition through a new musical language. “I wanted the concert to embody all the notions of what classical music thinks of itself, not in a pejorative way but as an exercise in postmodernism,” Cohler says.

The final concert on May 11 takes on springtime with Schumann’s “Spring” symphony and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Greater Bridgeport Symphony

The 50th anniversary of the first landing on the moon is the Greater Bridgeport Symphony’s inspiration for its season and the outer-space theme holds tight among the concerts. Composer and DJ Mason Bates overlays recordings of the John F. Kennedy’s historic “We choose to go to the moon” speech over the orchestra for his work “Passage 18” on Nov. 10. The March 16 concert waltzes to Strauss’ “The Beautiful Blue Danube,” a work instantly recognizable from its placement in the 1968 classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Actor Keir Dullea, who played astronaut David Bowman in the film, will be at the concert to introduce the work.

The orchestra also brings in star power soloists. High-profile pianist Yuja Wang makes a special Connecticut appearance, displaying high-octane performances and a complementary wardrobe for the Schumann Piano Concerto on Dec. 8. And the powerhouse violinist Gil Shaham helps wrap up the season on April 13 performing a recent work by Stamford native and accomplished composer David Bruce. The local bright stars of the Fairfield County Children’s Choir collaborate on Vivaldi’s “Gloria” on March 16, singing a work Vivaldi originally wrote for young singers.

“The choruses around Connecticut are just so special,” said Jacobsen, Greater Bridgeport’s music director.

And what else could close a season about the cosmos better than Holst’s “The Planets,” on April 13?

New Haven Symphony Orchestra

A civil rights-themed program of all-American music is among the highlights at the New Haven Symphony Orchestra’s 125th anniversary season. The concert on April 4 ranges from Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Joseph Schwantner’s “New Morning for the World” (“Daybreak of Freedom”) based on the speeches of Martin Luther King, to Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” based on Abraham Lincoln’s speeches. Children from around the city of New Haven will join the orchestra for African American composer Daniel Bernard Roumain’s (known as DBR) Hip-Hop Essay, Part I.

African-American violinist Ty Murray, whose musicianship was a standout in a concert at the Proms in London for Music Director William Boughton, makes her New Haven debut on March 19 with the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2.

The delightful symphonies of Mozart and Haydn open and close the concert.

It’s all a contrast with Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, Mahler’s large-scale meditation on the creation of the world, which not only closes out the season but also Boughton’s tenure as music director after 12 years with the orchestra.

“For this particular work, imagine a work so large that it mirrors the entire world,” says Boughton. “I think after 12 years that’s the way I want to leave the orchestra. It mirrors the whole of the 12 years and the journey we’ve taken together.”

Anna Reguero is a freelance writer.

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