Portland Symphony Orchestra
Nov. 15, 2017
by Christopher Hyde
I was looking forward to the battle of the 19th century—Liszt and Wagner (“modern” music), versus Brahms (tradition). From the Portland Symphony Orchestra under Ken-David Masur, candidate for music director, I got the kind of game that makes one want to turn off the TV and go to bed.
It had a few exciting moments but most of it was, shall we say, uninspired. It should be mentioned that the fans loved it, giving standing ovations to the Liszt Concerto No.1 in E-flat Major, brilliantly rendered by pianist Ran Dank, and the glorious final movement of the Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68.
The program began with the overture to “Tannhäuser,” in the slowest version I have ever heard this side of a slipping turntable. The interpretation provided some moments of knightly nobility in the brass, but mostly revealed Wagner’s string-section fillers. .
It was followed by the Liszt concerto, one of my least favorite compositions. Its opening motif, which crops up all over, is said to have proclaimed: “This, you do not understand,” and is as irritating musically as it is philosophically.
The concerto is basically a show-off piece, and Rank managed its extreme difficulties with ease. One place that Liszt shows some imagination is in his brilliant treble passage work (there is surprisingly little bass) and in this Dank excelled. The pianist demanded a slightly brisker tempo than displayed in the Wagner piece, but there is little for the orchestra to do anyway. The famous triangle was there, and some nice duets with the woodwinds, but that was about it, except for blaring the”understand” passage once in a while.
As readers may have noticed, I am a a confirmed Brahmsian, and it was with horror that during the first moment of the First Symphony I began to wonder when it would end. The tempo was so slow that the opening melody was lost in chaos for a few bars. Ditto the summer serenade of the second movement.
Things began to pick up in the allegretto grazioso, which is lighter than air, and finally accelerated to a reasonable tempo in the final movement, one of the great treasures of the world. It worked in spite of a completely inaudible passage that I noted as “invisible pizzicati.”
At the las moment, flocks of angels came to Masur’s rescue, bearing the music up with heavenly horn calls, some of the best I have heard, and leading into the fabulous final melody. Now I began to wish that it wouldn’t stop.
Throughout the concert the musicians gave their all, but they must have been dumbfounded by what the conductor was asking most of the time. Young people like to reinterpret the classics every generation, but there are limits.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.