Portland Symphony Orchestra
Sept 30, 2018
By Christopher Hyde
As we approached Merrill Auditorium Sunday afternoon for the-season- opening concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, we noticed a long line snaking around the corner and almost a block up Congress Street. The matinees are well attended, but this was unheard of. We learned later that the first arrivals had used only one of the three doors and that those coming later assumed incorrectly that it was the only one open . Hence the traffic back-up.
It was an eye-opening introduction to the power of suggestion, affirmed during the concert by guest conductor Jeffrey Kahane’s monumental interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s opera-for-orchestra “Francesca da Rimini” (Opus 32).
The music is supposed to depict a descent into Dante’s Inferno by two illici lovers, with a romantic interlude describing their passion—so it is said—in highly graphic terms, rather like Wagner’s Liebestod from “Tristan und Isolde.”
Suppose, however, that one was unfamiliar with the plot of “Francesca da Rimini” and was hearing the music for the first time. It would seem like two gigantic sea interludes by Rimsky Korsakov or a scene from “Peter Grimes” or “The Flying Dutchman,” interrupted by a peaceful on-shore stroll accompanied by clarinet solos.
One can feel the tremendous power of the wind and waves as the storm approaches, thrill to the strain of the sail on the creaking foremast, hear the canons in a sea battle, and sympathize with the ship going down in a whirlpool. In other words, one could write an entirely different scenario, equally convincing, based on the music alone. It is words and their power of suggestion that turn it into a tragic love fest. Or maybe Tchaikovsky suffered from sea sickness, and that was his vision of Hell.
Something to think about next time one hears program music, but it did seem like a fine tribute to the Maine coast from a guest to our state.
The stage was set for the opera by one of Tchaikovski’s most lush works for string orchestra, the Èlégie from the Serenade for Strings (Opus 48).
During the first half of the concert one felt a bit sorry for Amadeus, his “Prague” Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504, relegated to a rather low-key opener for an extremely flashy and well played Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, Opus 39, by Lowell Liebermann (b.1961).
Kahane, who is also a concert pianist, balanced the solo part, played by PSO Principal Lisa Hennessy, almost magically, accentuating all of the sections in which the composer demonstrates the virtuosity of James Galway–equalled by Hennessey in this rendition. The work itself, in a Stravinski-like style, without much dissonance, falls just short of greatness. Its combinations of voices are unique in the literature—muted trumpets and flute, piano-like sounds made by bouncing the bow on the strings, a woodwind ensemble that chirped like a nest full of songbirds—there was something new around every corner.
Like the concluding “Francesca,” it drew an enthusiastic standing ovation from the capacity audience.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at email@example.com.