Thursday, October 29, 2009

Portland Symphony: It is Enough

I’m still in “awe” both in mode and mood from Tuesday night’s concert by the Portland Symphony. It was, for me, one of the most exciting programs this ensemble has put together. Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture opened the performance and while there was a slight glitch in timing (two halves of the orchestra seemed momentarily out of sync) and an occasional muffling (soundwise, NOT notewise) of the strings, from early on in the piece there was a sense of occasion and purpose to the playing that expanded brilliantly as the piece grew.

Music Director, Robert Moody brought out all of the disparate qualities Brahms instilled in this miniature masterpiece, offering the full range from raucous energy and humor (one can almost taste the beer in the steins) to the sense of stately elegance and pride with which the work closes. So stirring was the performance that nary a minute between the final chord and a chorus of bravos and general cheering ensued. It was on.

Next up, everybody’s favorite old chestnut, Berg’s Violin Concerto. Okay, maybe not. First, I must say this: Berg is among my favorite composers and 13 years ago when I moved to Maine I already knew my Berg quota would be met only through trips away and recordings. When I saw the first announcement for this season I wrote (or called) friends near and wide . . . repeatedly, that “Berg was coming to Portland.” And not just in something like the more easily accessible post-Mahlerian “Three Orchestral Pieces” but full on with the Violin Concerto. I’ll admit a touch of dismay when before the piece ensued Moody picked up a microphone, though a photocopy of the Bach chorale “Es ist genug” inserted into the program forewarned a lecture on atonality and serialism might ensue, and so it was. I’m always of the opinion the music should speak for itself. Dismay, however, turned to joy, Moody’s enthusiasm (as well as a touch of nervousness) for the piece came through as he explained the structure, and had the orchestra play several of the themes, and involved the audience in a mass choral reading of Bach’s chorale.

What followed was nothing less than remarkable. PSO Concertmaster Charles Dimmick began with a reading that combined three things necessary to pull off this work: a technique that was spot on with amazing intonation and undaunted by the work’s technical challenges; an ability to move within the duplicity of both the confines and excesses of serialism; and finally, an obvious passion for the work itself. That passion was matched and fueled, measure-for-measure by Moody and the orchestra in a performance that oftentimes approached the incandescent. The second movement began (as it should) with a roar and Dimmick’s technical prowess here was allowed to shine with as virtuostic display which was every bit the equal as those from the great Romantic violin concerti. At the work’s conclusion Dimmick’s violin climbed higher – as if to heaven, holding that impossibly high harmonic in the air for an eternity, as the final chords played out. By now my eyes filled with tears and afterwards realized this was a moment I will remember and cherish for the rest of my life.

Intermission found some patrons confused by what they’d just heard and some negative comments about the piece, but I didn’t mind, finding almost all of them comical (particularly the gentleman who claimed to love 12 tone music, but finds this piece to be an example of “another case of the Emperor has no clothes.”

I’ve always wanted to hear Sibelius in Maine. Ol’ Jean was my favorite symphonist when I was growing up, and the Second Symphony was what nabbed me in the first place. As much as I love the work (and as frequently as I’ve heard it performed) only a few performances or recordings have ever felt completely “right” to me. Two would be Sir John Barbirolli and the Halle Orchestra and the decades later recording with Neeme Jarvi and the Gothenberg Orchestra (part of BIS’s complete Sibelius project that remains one of most rewarding projects in modern recording history). Too many conductors bring too much flash and fire to this symphony seemingly forgetful of where Sibelius was from and that fire is not the only thing that burns. Moody and the band got it just right creating an aura that appropriately swept through crisp north woods and might oceanic waves. The first movement danced its way through in typical Sibelius fashion, fragments of stunning melodies and motifs that sometimes are developed and sometimes simply slip away like the end of an icicle hanging from a tree.

As with the opening, the inner movements found Moody alternately playful and intense, allowing the orchestra to move through wildly changing rhythmic patterns and ever shifting sound choirs with a judicious (and remarkable) use of lüftpausen not only allowing the band to “breathe” but also serving to point up the sheer number of extraordinary tunes Sibelius nearly overwhelms us with. The final movement built up a head of steam that swept over us all like a tidal wave of sound, that central theme soaring in that Nordic/Ruski fashion (which some critics dismiss as “too obvious”) but which musicians and audiences cannot seem to get enough of. The final page brought a roar of sound from the orchestra followed by a roar of applause and an ovation from the audience.

It was as perfect a night of musicmaking as I’ve ever heard in this hall – magnificent in every regard. Bravo a tutti to Maestro Moody and the PSO!

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