Daniel Meyer conducts the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s pops concerts this weekend, the first of two trips he will make to Portland in coming weeks as a finalist to replace Robert Moody as the orchestra’s music director.
“Portland is an amazing city,” Meyer said in a phone interview, explaining his interest in the position. “It’s got everything you would want, including a lively and active cultural scene in a small package. The orchestra is wonderful and is made up of musicians who are tops in their field who love playing for an enthusiastic audience.”
And Portland has a great concert hall, he said. Meyer, who conducted the PSO as a guest in 2007, loves Merrill Auditorium, which, in addition to its great acoustics, also has great intimacy. “You are very lucky in that you have a performance space that reflects the hard work that has gone into preparing a piece of music,” he said. “There’s an immediacy in Merrill that helps people respond to what is happening on stage. You get a lot of good feedback quickly.”
Meyer, music director of the Asheville Symphony and Erie Philharmonic, will conduct “Rodgers & Hammerstein on Broadway” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. He will return May 13 to conduct a Sunday Classical program featuring the music of “Swan Lake.”
He is one of three finalists for the job of music director. The others are Ken-David Masur, assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony and artistic director of the Chelsea Music Festival, and Eckart Preu, whose duties include directing the Long Beach Symphony and Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra.
Each finalist gets at least two concerts in Portland to present his credentials to the orchestra and to the audience. Masur and Preu have already conducted their concerts. Orchestra management hopes to hire a music director this spring or summer. Moody conducts his final concerts as music director on April 29 and May 1.
Meyer, 46, grew up in Ohio and went to school at Boston University, immersing himself in Boston’s musical culture while singing with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the Cantata Singers and other classical music performance groups.
At BU, Meyer received the Orchestral Conducting Honors Award. He studied conducting at the Hochschule für Musik in Vienna and is a graduate of Denison University and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
For this weekend’s Broadway program, he recruited soprano Lisa Vroman as guest vocalist. This is her first appearance in Portland. For many years, she played Christine Daae on Broadway in “The Phantom of the Opera.” The pops program features many of the show tunes that made Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein famous: “The Sound of Music” and “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music,” “Shall We Dance” from the “The King and I” and songs written by other composers who were influenced by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Meyer designed what he called “a classic Broadway program from the singer’s era of Broadway” to take advantage of Vroman’s talents and range. While most people cite her 2,000-plus performances on Broadway with “Phantom” as her career pinnacle, Meyer said, “That’s the least of what she has accomplished in her career. Standing on stage with Lia Vroman is like standing next to an encyclopedia of American music history. She is at home with anything. She knows this repertoire inside out and has an operatically trained voice. She knows how to sing (and how) to preserve her career and her instrument. She sounds as fresh as when she got into the business.”
Meyer’s Sunday Classical program on May 13 will feature music from “Swan Lake” by Tchaikovsky, as well as Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances,” which Meyer described as “a tour de force that shows off the capability of the orchestra. There’s enormous depth to it. Rachmaninoff knew this would be one of the last works he would write and invested an enormous amount of energy in it. His legacy is all there.”
As a conductor, Meyer has been influenced by many of his peers, and cites Robert Shaw, Simon Rattle and Seiji Ozawa as three of the conductors who have influenced him the most. Shaw, he said, “had this messianic zeal. He was almost a preacher type, who, by the end of the first rehearsal, we would have jumped off the cliff for him.”
Rattle demonstrated to Meyer how to capitalize on charisma. “He’s got that in spades.”
And Ozawa offered an example of how to present in public. “He had this physicality that completely embodied the music he was conducting. His whole body was involved.”
He also mentioned the John Oliver, founder of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, who recently died. Oliver was “a brilliant maestro,” Meyer said.
As for Portland, Meyer is eager to return – for his auditions in the short term and much longer if things work out. “I’m excited about getting reacquainted with the community. The food scene has really exploded, and the city is growing. I am eager to hear the orchestra again,” he said.