Portland Symphony Orchestra
Feb. 11, 2018
by Christopher Hyde
Guest conductor Paul Polivnik did a fine job with the Portland Symphony Orchestra Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium, when Music director Robert Moody was unable to officiate due to the death of his father.
Polivnik, currently music director and conductor emeritus of the New Hampshire Music Festival, has worked with many of the world’s leading orchestras and, in spite of a few technical glitches by individual players, was able to get the best out of the PSO at short notice, earning several standing ovations.
The high point of the afternoon was a performance of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, Op. 16, by concert master Charles Dimmick., who was equally at home in the first two lyrical movements and the fiendish finale.
There is still some controversy about this work, the violinist who commissioned it having turned it down because the finale was too difficult. Critics have said that the explanation can’t be right, since the violinist in question was a virtuoso, but knowing Barber’s piano works—and witnessing Dimmicks prestissimo fingering,— I find the explanation quite satisfactory.
A more important question is the fit of the final presto with what has gone before. No one seems to have noticed the gaelic flavor of the first two movements, with a jig-like motif appearing now and then, even in those funereal sections that are indicated by the beat of a muffled drum. Perhaps the concerto is an American “Death and Transfiguration,” with the flight of the soul portrayed by vastly increasing the tempo of fragments introduced earlier. I loved the ending, with a piano glissando leading up to the final abrupt note on the violin.
Whatever the explanation, the performance by Dimmick was utterly convincing, overcoming some significant lapses in Barber’s orchestration. You do not pit the solo violin against trumpets, the French horn maybe, but not the massed brass, unless you want a string fortissimo to disappear. Polivnik was able to ameliorate the worst of the excesses, but they were still obvious.
The other “modern” work on the program, “Alternative Energy” by Mason Bates (b. 1977), although well played (I think), was not as successful. I could not read all of the program, so I imagined each of the four movements as depicting forms of energy—Fords Farm, the automobile, Chicago, wind power, Xinjiang Province, solar, and Reykjavick, geothermal. Amid the blurts, rumblings and squeaks, the program worked pretty well, down to the recorded seabird calls stolen from Rutavaara’s “Cantus Arcticus.”
It turns out that the symphony depicts an historical dystopia in which a Chinese nuclear plant blows up and the remaining humans, living in a rain forest in Iceland, long for the days of the Model T. Close enough. Syncopated chords tossed around the orchestra get old fast.
The concluding “Bolero” was a miraculously controlled crescendo, with a few nicks in the paint consisting of muffed entrances, which tend to stand out like a sore thumb in Ravel’s orchestration. It nevertheless deserved its own standing ovation.
As usual, the opening work on the program, Brahms’ “Academic Festival” Overture, made me long for college days, which were actually among the more miserable of experiences. Next time, I’ll go to Heidelberg, drink lots of beer and emerge with a duelling scar.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.