Friday, May 9, 2008

Moody Leads Portland Symphony in Season Finale

The other night I attended a special “Prelude” concert with the Portland Symphony Orchestra under the direction of its new Music Director, Robert Moody – (technically still Music Director Designate). This (and tonight’s performance) serve as Maestro Moody’s last under the “Designate” designation before he officially begins his reign this summer.

Moody strode onstage, a dapper, elegant and boyishly familiar looking figure combining a Robert Downey, Jr. like casual intensity with Ryan Seacrest hair. Every conductor must cultivate his look –it’s part of the job and in this regard, Moody’s unaffected, natural look would appear to suit both him and his audience, well. First up on this 75 minute –intermission-free concert, was a Maine premiere: “Phoenix” for Orchestra by the North Carolinian, Dan Locklair. Composed in 1980 for organ, brass and percussion, Moody, explained to the audience, how moved he was by a performance of “Phoenix” in its original form, and contacted the conductor to see if it could be reworked for full symphony. The result is a work I well imagine will leave audiences elated and cheering, as it did last night.

Fanfares by antiphonal brass onstage and also opposite ends of the balcony) introduced a slightly prickly martial theme quickly assimilated into the orchestra. Crisp and lively the piece marches nobly forward assuming a more valedictory air before a soulful – almost folkish melody takes over in the strings. Here, I was put to mind of one of those wonderful British tone poems - where a simple melody serves as the basis for a work that starts off charming before morphing its way into something grander, more stirring. It feels distinctly programmatic, like the very best movie music (and though film music is often used as a “put down” for contemporary music, such is not the case here – I’m talking about film composers in the Shostakovich, Copland, Walton and Britten mold, folks).

It is at this point where Phoenix, as its title seems to imply, begins to soar. Soon the full battery of instruments weaves its way through this beautiful theme, before a return of the brass fanfares – the mighty Kotzschmar Organ joining in, Phoenix continues to a glorious finale of awe and majesty. That all of this happens can occur in ten minutes is rather remarkable. Locklair’s orchestration of his own work, works. Big time. The PSO’s performance, with their new young maestro at the helm, quite simply owned the work. It was inspiring watching Moody’s face – an enormous smile ever beaming – and to see members of the orchestra, his orchestra – and ours – smiling in return.

A snafu or two in the synchronization of three ensembles notwithstanding, I couldn’t help smiling myself, proud to hear such rich, sweeping beauty and expressiveness of sound coming from “my” orchestra. Stirred as I was by the experience, it was impossible to ignore or resist the few but persistent tears escaping my eyes. Here was this new, young leader challenging himself, his orchestra and audience to go on a journey with him; here, the sonorous, rapturous and heart-on-sleeve emotional playing of the full ensemble - in my favorite hall (well, tied with Carnegie), of a new, inspired score. It was all of these things combining truly “in concert” that provided an experience to stimulate and overwhelm the senses. It’s what I live for.

I look forward learning and hearing more of Locklair’s music, and grateful to Moody for introducing him to Portland.

Following a brief introduction and a retuning of the ensemble, Moody again took the podium - this time for the evening’s featured attraction: Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, in D: the “Titan.” At the opening of the first movement – with that haunted, air-filled raspy stillness pervading the room - the strings barely making a sound – I realized, immediately, this was as magically hypnotic playing as I'd ever heard from this orchestra. Soon the room was filled with those familiar bird calls, sounds of nature, and folk inspired melody as Moody convincingly coaxed and calibrated Mahler’s built-in F/X from the orchestral fabric. It was done so brilliantly and convincingly for a moment I thought I’d been dropped off in Vienna.

Moody’s take on this symphony put me in mind of something I’ve been beginning to imagine or wonder about: the idea of an “American School of Mahler” sound. That is, to say playing of a less severe nature (though no less seriously played) than the mid-to-late 20th century European performances and recordings many or most of us grew up with, but in a style that seems to fully integrate Mahler’s picturesque libretti – closer to (I believe) what the composer, himself intended. One of the things that impressed me most last night about Moody was his ability to control and pace the most difficult transitions - thematic or temporal, holding the ensemble together taut and precise - this, in spite of Mahler’s many wild, mad-dash and virtuostic transformations.

Moody exuded genuine confidence in this music and never did one feel hesitation – either in his gestures nor from the players, all seeming to believe in each other. This is a rare, special thing in any ensemble and never to be lightly taken. Not an overly theatrical conductor, Moody nonetheless skimps nothing in his gestures – his motions, signals and direction alternately entrancing, dramatic when necessary, but clear always. Precise, always. In the Mahler this yielded a powerful, dramatic result that Moody and his musicians seemed never to be in question of. It was clear from those hushed, barely heard notes an hour earlier, where this was going.

The orchestra seemed reinvigorated, up to every challenge this monumental "Titan" of scores presents. The strings, with their Wagnerian-inspired tremolos, were thrilling, the winds and brass evocatively, skillfully painting the forces of nature Mahler demands. It was as exciting and well played a performance as I can remember ever hearing from this ensemble. I was thrilled by how skillfully Moody balanced the “Many Moods of Mahler”: bucolic, triumphant, noble, tragic, romantic (the Ländler played with wonderful, old-world style portamento), the silly drunken fun of the Klezmer-inspired madness, nothing was skimped on, and all of it was of a piece, none of it felt episodic or disjointed, all feeling as though wedded to the greater whole.

That this was happening here, in Portland, with our home team was . . . well, inspiring seems not strong enough a word for it, but it will have to do.

Friends, I believe we are in for some remarkable times ahead. Welcome – and thank you, Maestro Moody!


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