Portland Symphony Orchestra
Mar. 20, 2018
by Christopher Hyde
“Even Homer sometimes nods.” Great composers have their off days, even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the late opera “La clemenza di Tito,” whose overture led off the program of the Portland Symphony Orchestra Tuesday night at Merrill Auditorium.
A packed house had come to hear one of the candidates for music director, Ken-David Masur, lead the orchestra in Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, (No. 5 in E-flat Major, Opus 73), with Russian-born pianist Natasha Paremski.
An added bonus, after intermission, was the seldom-heard Symphony No. 6 in D Major, Op. 60, of Antonín Dvorák, the reason I added the familiar quote about Homer. In most cases there is a reason why works are seldom heard, and the No. 6 is not one of Dvorák’s most inspired compositions.
Sometimes conductors, or soloists, contrive to make a work sound better than it is, but that was not the case on Tuesday. The symphony was certainly pleasant and well played, but lacked inspiration or excitement. Even the Furiant third movement did not come up to the level of any of the Slavonic Dances, which it resembled. Could it have been a dance left out of that set? Waste not, want not.
The rest of the work has the composer’s authentic Bohemian flavor, but in it he lacks the confidence to utilize Slavonic themes to the full extent, which makes it sound somewhat derivative.
Getting back to the main event, one of my favorite concertos of all time, it was also well-played, tempo giusto and accurate to a fault. Paremski has one of the most beautiful portamento techniques I have ever heard—like a string of well-matched pearls, as my piano teacher used to say. In that regard, she was perfectly suited to Beethoven’s writing for piano.
In other regards, not so much. The bass lacked power, and the sforzando chords often sounded febrile rather than powerful. The orchestra and piano occasionally ran on different tracks, and the whole lacked coherence and drive, in spite of some memorable passage work and interplay between the piano and orchestral sections.
The audience gave it the usual standing ovation, and Paremski, thankfully, did not play an encore, but all-in-all, the performance was not the transcendent experience it could have been. I was once admonished: “A musical performance is not a religious experience.” To quote Woody Allen in another context: “It is if it’s done right.”
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.