The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s 90th Anniversary Gala concert, at Merrill Auditorium on Saturday, offered four widely divergent styles of music and conducting, all equally appealing.
If anyone in the crowd expected a shootout among conductors Paul Vermel, Bruce Hangen, Toshiyuki Shimada and Robert Moody, they were disappointed. A spirit of collegiality prevailed and the orchestra gave its best to all. Each of the former music directors received a standing ovation upon his appearance, as did Robert Moody, who has held the post since 2008.
Vermel, who led the orchestra from 1967 to 1975, opened the program with Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture, in stately classical style, elegantly paced and full of rich harmonies. There was a fermata near the end of the eight-minute work that generated a huge amount of suspense. Vermel, who at 92 conducted sitting down, has lost none of his precision and feel for phrasing and dynamics.
Hangen, who directed from 1976 to 1986, brought a distinctive impressionistic flavor and orchestral color to “The Fountains of Rome,” by Ottorino Respighi.
Hangen has a special affection for the work, having performed it during his audition for the post of music director. Like his fellow conductors, Hangen has a friendly relationship with the musicians, remarking, after their tuning up while he was on stage: “And now for our next number…” Shimada later commented on the same thing, informing the audience that it was a well-known Chinese work entitled “Tu ning.”
The composition chosen by Shimada, Paul Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis,” is one of the most technically demanding orchestral works ever written, with a texture so thick it has to be cut through with a machete. Shimada made it shine clearly and with brilliance.
“The work is a great way to measure an orchestra’s technical abilities and musicality,” Shimada said earlier, “I am looking forward to finding out how much the PSO has progressed artistically.” He seemed well satisfied after the spectacular and triumphant march that ends the piece and gave principal flautist Lisa Hennessy a warm hug for her spectacular work in the andantino.
High drama was the path chosen by Moody, in the concluding “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” by Richard Strauss, with the Kotzschmar Organ as the voice of the abyss.
Strauss begins with the ascending three-note motif (C-G-C) made famous by Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and then proceeds to show how much can be done with it, from waltzes to a 12-tone fugue.
The tone poem purports to describe the ascent of man, from the cave to the superman, but like much of Strauss it has a Freudian subtext. The violin duet in the final “Song of the Night Wanderer,” hauntingly played by concertmaster Charles Dimmick and assistant concertmaster Alice Lord-Hallstrom, is some of the most erotic music in the repertoire. It indicates, like the faint discord that ends the work, that mankind will probably just keep on keeping on.
Moody and the orchestra received a well-deserved standing ovation for a near-faultless performance, and all four conductors came on stage for a series of bows and cheers for a job well done.
WHAT: Portland Symphony Orchestra
WHERE: Merrill Auditorium
WHEN: Reviewed May 2