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Christopher Hyde

Christopher Hyde's Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram.

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Posted: January 29, 2015

Classical Concert Review: PSO’s Beethoven series off to a spectacular start

Written by: Christopher Hyde
Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo

The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s 90th anniversary project, the presentation of all nine Beethoven symphonies in three concert seasons, is off to a spectacular start. It will be difficult, however, to duplicate the magic of artistic director Robert Moody’s vision of the Sixth in F Major, also known as the Pastorale, as demonstrated Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium.

An obligatory disclaimer: Despite the popularity of the Ninth symphony, the Sixth is my all-time favorite. This usually makes reviewing problematic because of familiarity and prejudice toward certain versions. The Portland Symphony performance had no such problems, being well-nigh perfect in technical execution, tempo, delineation of voices and expressiveness. To the large audience at Merrill, it demonstrated the absolute necessity of live performance for full enjoyment of this work.

The opening movement conjures up a carriage ride through the Vienna woods. The wheels keep turning in a kind of perpetual motion as new vistas open up, each one as beautiful as the last. The long crescendos of this section were superb.

The passenger, Beethoven, descends from his coach to stroll alone in the woods, seeing the scene in greater detail and almost dissolving into nature. The bird calls in the last part of this movement are portrayed magically, becoming part of the music rather then a sentimental addendum. Kudos to the flute, oboe and clarinet.

Walking in the woods creates a desire for beer, like the music of J.S. Bach to H.L. Mencken, and a tavern on the green provides not only sustenance but the music of a rustic band, which becomes as natural as birdsong.

The cover of a tavern comes just in time to shelter from a thunderstorm. The depiction of thunderstorms had a fatal attraction for Romantic composers, but they had to give up after Beethoven perfected the technique. There was nothing further to say. Moody and the PSO did it better than Stokowski in “Fantasia.”

What is there to say about the final moment? Beethoven is not known for beautiful melodies, but this is the exception. He takes it through transformation after transformation and still one wishes that it would never end.

Would that I could be as enthusiastic about another favorite of mine, the Brahms Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, with soloist Jennifer Frautschi.

It began interestingly enough. Was it that Frautschi has a way of setting the solo violin apart from the orchestra, perhaps by playing a microtone or so sharp? Some egregious errors and a lack of connection with the orchestra soon created anxiety rather than interest, and that state of mind carried through a botched cadenza into the lovely adagio.

The rousing gypsy dance of the finale, marked “not too lively,” always carries away the audience, no matter what, and this performance was no exception. Frautschi and the orchestra received a standing ovation, and Beethoven did not. Go figure.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

WHERE: Merrill Auditorium, Portland

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