Portland Symphony Orchestra,
Jan. 27, 2019
by Christopher Hyde
It is a requirement, under penalty of banishment, that guest conductors, or musical directors designate, lavishly praise the musicians of whatever orchestra happens to be in front of them. In the case of Eckart Preu and the Portland Symphony Orchestra, as presented Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium, the praise was both genuine and well-deserved.
Preu, in a daring choice of compositions, showed that the PSO, when properly rehearsed and conducted, is the equal of any orchestra in the world. There is no such thing as musical perfection, except in the hands of a recording engineer, but in terms of technique and full realization of emotional and musical content, the performances could not have been better.
I use the word “daring” because the pieces chosen were both well-known masterpieces of difficult-to-achieve orchestral color. Both were resplendent, clear and brilliant, while full of seldom-revealed relationships. Preu, in his Gershwin concert last year, made “American in Paris” sound better than it is. On Sunday, he and the PSO made some old warhorses into frolicking colts.
In between, he convinced a capacity audience to actually enjoy the world premiere of a “modern” work by Michael-Thomas Foumai (b.1987): “The Telling Rooms,” commissioned by the PSO and based upon poetry by young Maine authors Aubrey Duplissie, Husna Quinn and Eliza Rudalevige.
Each of the poems, respectively “The Happiest Color,” ”Dressed in Red,” and “Ink Wash,” describes emotions associated with a color or colors. Foumai’s tonal and youthfully rhythmic settings provide an equivalent kaleidoscope of moods. The composer and poets, who were in the audience, received a warm round of applause.
The program began with Tchaikovsky’s ”Romeo and Juliet” Overture Fantasy, which needs no description other than the plot of Shakespeare’s play. Program writers seem incredulous that a homosexual could have written what is arguably the greatest love music ever composed, but the best description of war, “The Red Badge of Courage,” was written by a man who never saw combat. (And there are questions about Shakespeare’s romantic inclinations too.)
I’m digressing because there is nothing to say about Sunday’s performance except that it was the finest I have heard anywhere.
Ditto (I think) for Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” Op. 35.
There may be more technically perfect recordings—that sound engineer again—but seldom any as moving. Or any that delineate the emotional transformations of themes as well. As just one example, the astonishing performance of concert master Charles Dimmick, whose solo violin depicts the story-teller Scheherazade as she strings along the murderous Sultan night after a thousand nights, wondering what happens next. Her voice actually seems to mature before being heard as the last word in the symphony.
Preu emphasized the “what comes next” aspect with unusually long pauses, which worked perfectly.
The audience, which had remained perfectly silent though a lengthy performance, erupted in cheers as the last bubbles rose from Sinbad’s wrecked ship, never questioning how a land-locked Russian could write the world’s best sea-inspired music.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lies in Pownal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.