Wednesday, October 7, 2009

PSO's Season Opens With "Heroic" Night

Last night saw the opening of the 85th Season of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. After a stirring rendition of our National Anthem, Music Director, Robert Moody launched the band into what has always been one of my favorite works in the entire orchestral repertoire; Beethoven’s mighty Number 3, “Eroica.”

We’re talking the “beginning” of the modern symphony here and it’s always interesting to me to see what direction a conductor takes this piece. Moody is proving himself to be a fascinating fit for this orchestra, with intriguing ideas that seem thoroughly researched and thought out. I recall how impressed I was with this conductor last year attending a lecture he gave on Mahler’s First, and the performances the following days. He swept away many notions that have become traditional, while not necessarily urtext, of how Mahler should go, bringing back the exaggerated portamenti that have been missing from (in particular the Ländler-like sections and the woozy, boozy chunks of Klezmer).

In its way the Beethoven is every bit as revolutionary as the Mahler, and equally difficult with its abruptly dramatic, nearly irrational changes in tempi, dynamics, scale and orchestration and it was in these challenges where Moody proved himself to be amazingly adept – masterful even – in controlling the shape and arc of this music and the attention to detail at each of numerous transitions. It was remarkable to hear – particularly when your home team is not Berlin or Boston. Moody is what I like to call an “audience comforter; he always looks comfortable doing what he’s doing (this is not to say he lacks intensity) but rather that we are learning very early that those transitions some of us worry present the potential for a train wreck, to his credit and our good fortune, never come.

I heard in this performance a conductor who has studied his Szell, his Bernstein, but also seems influenced by the best of the old “Romantic German School of Conducting” without its ponderousness, while still retaining the necessary gravitas this symphony needs in key places.

This was nowhere more evident than in the massive second movement, the famous “Funeral March,” which provided some of the best playing of the orchestra all evening. There were moments where sections threatened not to square up with each other, but they almost always did, adding a delicious tension to this music. And there were moments when the full richness of the string sound was as luxuriant as one could hope to hear. This was particularly notable in the fugue, where Moody achieved as remarkable a thing as I have ever heard in this hall. Here was intensity, a momentum that looked not only forward, but backwards and sideways – the strings making that striking statement, picked up and punctuated by the basses as the oboe sneaks in even more mournfully and . . . well, words simply cannot convey the shared feeling that seemed to flood the hall as the power of Beethoven overwhelmed (I’m tempted to state the obvious, so well “from beyond the grave.”)

Balances were nearly perfect in the final movements, the scherzo, a crazy quilt of delicacy and bombast (which would serve Beethoven well in all he would come to write for us later), with the finale offering a nicely nuanced, slightly edgy vision of “heroism” ending with warmth, energy and a generous lightness of mood. I like the direction we’re going here.

Upon returning for the second half, one couldn’t help but notice the stage was now filled with a Mahlerian (or Wagnerian) sized orchestra, chairs and stands for seven soloists, a piano, movie screen and an enormous battery of percussion instruments. Accompanying Maestro Moody to the stage were seven actors from Portland Stage; Ron Botting, Maureen Butler, Moira Driscoll, Mark Honan, Daniel Noel, Bess Welden and Michele Livermore Wigton, attired in costumes from the era and country each was later to represent in the Maine premiere of young American composer, Peter Boyer’s piece “Ellis Island: The Dream of America.”

I admit the snob in me at first balked when I read how this piece has left every audience leaping to their feet, how sniffles and sobs could be heard in each performance and . . . well, I wasn’t expecting to be won over. It is unmistakeably “American” music, with nods towards Howard Hanson, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Scott Joplin the Bernsteins – both Leonard and Elmo, and a dash of John Williams. It is program music, every bar has a cinematic feel to it and before one dismisses this, we need to realize and appreciate that this is part of our heritage too. Is it “great” music? I neither know nor can be the judge of that. What I do know is it would take a heart of the stoniest cynic to not be moved by what Boyer has produced here with a score that mines most of the great human emotions and unfailingly stirs fervent patriotism in every breast. Throughout the piece, and at its immense conclusion, I felt such pride I thought I might explode both in tears and with laughter at the sheer joy of being an American.

This is theatre of an unusual stripe, an opera for speakers and orchestra. This sounds novel, but Beethoven, Debussy, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and others have done similarly and Mr. Boyer follows their lead unflinchingly, unapologetically. The lights dimmed and a short fanfare introduced us to hundreds of faces in a beautifully edited film of slides showing immigrants arriving and being processed at Ellis Island; faces of hope, fear, relief, elation and most of all, freedom.

The seven actors each narrated the experience of an actual immigrant who, as part of the Ellis Island Project, shared their tales of their voyage and their dream of America. Boyer’s score surges and soars in filmic fashion but not as mere soundtrack but rather part and parcel of the entire work. I heard all around me, choked back tears, sniffles and laughter – some of it my own, and yes, at it’s conclusion, with the beautiful recitation of Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus,” the stage went bright and the score exploded with light and color into a shattering fortissimo that left 2,000 people cheering and standing. I thought of my question again: Is this great music? I now have to say, yes. Yes, it is.

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