Portland Symphony Orchestra
Oct. 9, 2016
by Christopher Hyde
Until Sunday’s concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra at Merrill Auditorium, complete with Kotzschmar Organ, I had never realized just how good Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” was. It was a shining example, if any were needed, of the absolute necessity of live performance. To think that any substantial percentage of its excitement could be captured electronically is palpably absurd.
Music director Robert Moody pulled out all the stops for this crowd-pleasing conclusion to the first concert of the season—a terrific nightingale recording, off-stage trumpets, reinforced brass and the growl of the afore-mentioned organ. The entire orchestra was on its best behavior in a score that for gorgeousness of orchestral color puts even Rimsky-Korsakov, Respighi’s teacher, to shame.
All four movements of the work were superb examples of musical scene-painting. One could almost feel the warm winds blowing through the pine branches or visualize the ancient Christians chanting in the catacombs, but the final triumphant procession of the Roman legions was sui generis. Compare it to Ravel’s infinitely long crescendo in “Bolero”, the only composition that comes anywhere near to its spectacular climax. It was held to imperceptible gradations in volume by the terrific work of John Tanzer on timpani.
If there are seats left for today’s (Monday, Oct. 10)) performance, it is not to be missed. You will be able to hear it just fine from the nosebleed sections.
The program began with an excellent performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major (Op. 60), marred somewhat by over-attention to detail and over-blown dynamic contrasts, perhaps resorted to because the piece lacks the inherent appeal of the other eight. The details, however, such as the soaring flute solo in the adagio, posed yet another argument for live performance.
In listening to this seldom-heard symphony, I find it helps to imagine it as aspects of water, beginning with a still lake, eventually ruffled by a breeze. The Fourth doesn’t compel visions, like the Sixth, but the water imagery helps one follow its development.
The most disappointing aspect of the afternoon was a new concerto by Mason Bates (b. 1977), written for cellist Joshua Roman, who performed it as well as could be expected, accompanied by a huge orchestra with no place to go. I believe some of the instruments were used only once in three movements. Their purpose seemed to be the simulation of electronically generated sounds.
In the final movement, a kind of jazzy Irish pub improvisation that goes on forever, without even the consolation of beer, Roman resorted to a guitar pick for some involved pizzicato passages. I guess it’s easier on the fingers.
The audience gave the talented young cellist a standing ovation, but the concerto is the kind of music that would sound better on a CD.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org.