PORTLAND – The Portland Symphony Orchestra opened its 2011-12 season at Merrill Auditorium with three crowd pleasers. A work written in 1985 — Michael Torke’s “Bright Blue Music”– led off a program that included Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (“Emperor”) and Brahms Symphony No. 4 in E-minor, Op. 98.

“Bright Blue Music” is a cheerful, repetitive piece in D-major, which is related to the color blue. The orchestration is complex, without being particularly skillful, and the traditional tonality leads to a large number of passages that are familiar to anyone acquainted with the 100 Top Hits of Classical Music. It lasted nine minutes and ended on a solo high note.

Considerably more interesting was pianist Awadagin Pratt’s sometimes quirky but always fascinating interpretation of the Emperor Concerto, which earned a standing ovation that for once was entirely deserved.

The performance was by no means perfect — there were moments when Pratt and conductor Robert Moody seemed at odds about the tempo, or the space that should be allotted an ornamental passage — but it was more thoughtful and satisfying than many I have heard in recent years.

The lyrical second movement was particularly striking. Pratt has tremendous power but also a delicacy like frost patterns on a window. Almost inaudible passages had the audience leaning forward to catch every note. The opening was mysterious and the development seemed as if the pianist were creating it as he went along. The result was an incredible tension, released with the first bars of the Rondo.

One of my piano teachers proclaimed that a rapid portamento should be like “a string of pearls.” She would have been ecstatic over Pratt’s jewel-like passage work. But Beethoven himself would have envied the powerful chords that can be executed by a virtuoso on a modern piano.

The Brahms was less successful, not from any recognizable error in the orchestra but from a lack of cohesiveness in certain sections, most notably in the opening Allegro non troppo. There are so many lovely and interesting things happening in a Brahms score that it is sometimes difficult to concentrate on the main thrust.

That problem was not in evidence in the totally ravishing Andante that followed. Brahms may have envied Strauss for his melodic inventiveness, but when he creates a tune of his own it puts all lesser composers to shame. The Andante is one of the high points of music and the orchestra did it justice.

It also was in good form in the final movement, a set of variations on a theme by Bach that somehow builds to a satisfying climax.

The program of Sunday’s concert will be repeated today. If there are any seats available, it would be well worth hearing.

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: [email protected]