A Symphony Worth Standing For

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Apr. 12, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Audiences at Merrill Auditorium are notorious for giving standing ovations to solo performers, deserved or not, but not so much to symphonies. On Tuesday night, the custom was reversed.

Portland Symphony Orchestra principal hornist John Boden’s fine performance of the Hindemith Concerto for Horn and Orchestra received sustained applause, but no cheers. The Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in E Minor (Op. 64) concluded with the most riotous, shouting ovation that I have heard in years.

The difference was guest conductor Stefan Vladar, who plays the orchestra like a giant Bösendorfer, (formerly the world’s largest and most prestigious piano). Vladar brings the passion,elegance and grace under pressure of a concert pianist to the role of conductor. His disciplined energy was evident from the first bars of the Mendelssohn’s “The Hebrides” (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26.

Vladar transformed an atmospheric work that often seems like plain vanilla into an exciting panorama that mirrored the young composer’s fascination with the changing vistas of the rocky Scottish coast. The secret was dynamic contrasts in volume and texture, and from agitato to dolcissimo and back again, over a strong, precise rhythm.

As a veteran of many hard-fought battles between pianist and conductor, he is also very good at supporting a soloist, as shown by the fine balance of the Hindemith concerto. That composer’s unusual orchestration, such as horn against piccolo and the final susurrations and conversation among equals of the finale, were brought out effectively.

Following intermission, one felt a little anxious for Boden who, after a grueling concerto, returned for one of the most exposed horn solos in the repertoire, the opening of the andante cantabile in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. Like everything else in this stellar performance, it went off without a hitch.

The symphony was a perfect testimonial, if one is needed, to the necessity of live music. From the beginning clarinets which, after the opening measures return as a delicate obligato to the principal theme, to Boden’s horn calls, there emerged a multitude of fine details that could never be heard in a recording. And the final, titanic clash between the evil “X” and the life force, would have blown every speaker in the house, if the volume could ever have been turned up that high.

Somewhat too exciting for a young girl…but worthy of a sustained uproar, every section of a great orchestra performing in an exalted state.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.