Portland Symphony Orchestra
May 1, 2018
by Christopher Hyde
The Robert Moody era of the Portland Symphony Orchestra ended with a very loud bang Tuesday night at Merrill Auditorium, when the music director conducted the final work of his 10-year sojourn, a monumental performance of the Mahler Symphony No.. 2 (“Resurrection”).
A full orchestra, with major additions on and off stage, two operatic sopranos, and the ChoralArt Masterworks chorus, were at Moody’s disposal, and he made the most of them. The percussion section had a field day, producing a decibel level heard before only in the engine room of a diesel submarine. Three sets of timpani, one offstage? I was surprised that Moody didn’t throw in a few bass notes from the Kotzschmar organ.
The capacity audience loved it, erupting in a lively standing ovation, with cheers, after an emotionally grueling 90-minutes (with one short interruption). In the orchestra there were hugs all around and an unusual bouquet for the maestro.
In a survey of 150 conductors of major orchestras, the Mahler No. 2 was in the top three of favorites. It is easy to see why. The symphony has something for everyone, from massed brasses and trumpets to rival the angel Gabriel to nursery rhymes, from harps to hautboys, from clarinets to contrabassoons.
In addition to bad poetry after Klopstock, Mahler wrote his own program notes, useful in trying to know what is going on. Before Pulitzer-Winning hip-hop, how did a composer describe the meaninglessness of life?
“The first movement represents a funeral and asks questions such as “Is there life after death?”; the second movement is a remembrance of happy times in the life of the deceased; the third movement represents a view of life as meaningless activity; the fourth movement is a wish for release from life without meaning ; and the fifth movement – after a return of the doubts of the third movement and the questions of the first – ends with a fervent hope for everlasting, transcendent renewal.”
The orchestra was in top form and enthusiastic; the Masterworks Chorus, under Robert Russell, gave one of its best performances, with plenty of bass, and the soloists, soprano Twyla Robinson and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop, were outstanding, both in their depiction of the emotions desired by the composer and in their ability to soar above a tremendous orchestra.
The contrast and variety Moody was able to coax from the vast ensemble were little short of miraculous. Finally, the choral sections, as the composer intended, were like cool water after a day in the desert. There were live effects could never be duplicated on a recording.
So why didn’t the symphony become a religious experience, as it is for many? Too much going on? Too long? The composer’s conceit about the value of his suffering? Supertitles in English? (Like the Catholic mass in Latin, the poetry works best in German.) Perhaps most off-putting was overdramatized emotion, tearing a passion to tatters. Mahler’s most effective expressions are ironic or gentle reminders of weltschmerz. Speak softly and you won’t have to carry a big stick.
All in all, however, the symphony was a marvelously performed tribute and a grand farewell to a friend.