Several years ago, Robert Moody waited in line for tickets to a concert in San Francisco led by renowned conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.
As he waited, he overheard someone say, “I don’t know this piece, but I trust Michael Tilson Thomas.”
In that moment, Moody understood the role of trust between a maestro and his audience.
As he prepares for the 89th season of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, Moody hopes he has earned his audience’s trust. This will be his sixth season as music director and conductor.
“I strive for a ‘trust-Robert factor,’ ” he said. “I want people to think, ‘I don’t know this work by Prokofiev, but I trust Robert and I trust the Portland Symphony Orchestra.’ We pray for that sentiment among the community. We want people to think that the Portland Symphony is their orchestra. They are part of the family.”
Moody and the PSO management put their trust on the line when the 2013-14 concert season begins this week. It all starts with evening concerts at Merrill Auditorium on Sept. 29 and Oct. 1.
The opening concerts will feature the fanfare from the early 20th-century ballet “La Peri” by French composer Paul Dukas, followed by guest pianist Orli Shaham performing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony.
The following weekend, the PSO Pops presents a program of Cole Porter and George Gershwin music featuring a pair of Broadway singers.
Over the course of the musical season, which stretches into June, Moody programs music that touches many emotions, including joy, sadness and humor. He wants people to reflect on their own personal circumstances at these concerts, and to allow the music to wash over them and bring catharsis.
Especially for these opening concerts, Moody envisions a program with emotional depth, musical variety and wide appeal.
“I always think of our programs as being part of a powerful journey,” he said. “I want people to feel tangibly like we are all in this together, and by that I mean everybody — me, the orchestra and the audience. That’s a tough high wire to walk. The wrong piece will kill that.
“I think about that with every program that I offer and submit, but it’s especially important for the season opener.”
THE OPENER SHOULD capture people’s attention, if only because it will look and sound so different from other classical concerts at Merrill Auditorium. The Dukas fanfare will feature the entire brass section ringed across the front of the stage. Moody will conduct from the aisle instead of from his usual spot at center stage.
Shaham will join the orchestra for the Beethoven piano concerto. In a phone interview, the Israeli-born pianist said the piece is one of her favorites, and one she performs so frequently, she rarely uses sheet music.
“The joy is in the tiny little details,” she said. “It’s full of positive energy and exuberance. The simplest way to describe it is pure joy.”
Especially while playing the first and third movements, Shaham said she can feel Beethoven’s pleasure in her fingers.
“His pleasure is palpable,” she said. “I can feel it every single time. It’s physically very satisfying, and very pleasing to the ear. Every note is a pearl that sparkles.”
The second movement is something else altogether. The piano feels in conflict with the orchestra. As the orchestra pushes in a heavy, dramatic way, the pianist plays “a beautiful, calm lyrical thing” to balance the bluster of the orchestra.
Shaham admitted there’s more to her visit to Maine than just music.
“I’m looking forward to getting my lobster fix,” said Shaham, who lives in New York City.
This will be Shaham’s first guest appearance with the PSO, and at least her second performance in Maine. She appeared many years ago at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, working under conductor Lewis Kaplan.
She also vaguely recalls a recital somewhere up the coast “24 or 25 years ago when I was a teenager.” Details are fuzzy, but the one memory from those visits was the food, and she looks forward to checking out Portland’s reputation as a foodie capital.
Shaham performs across the world, and may be best known for her classical concert series for children, “Baby Got Bach.” Her goal is to bring classical music to new audiences regardless of their age. In addition to her career as a performer, she also works as a broadcaster, writer and lecturer.
She will join Moody for a pre-concert Classical Conversation before the opening concerts on Sept. 29 and Oct. 1.
The concerts will close with Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. Moody has wanted to program this piece for several years, but has held off because the orchestra performed it just before he arrived six years ago. He doesn’t like to repeat pieces too frequently.
“But I think we’ve waited an appropriate amount of time now,” he said. “It’s one of those pieces that simply has to be experienced live, because you can never get from a recording the kind of living surround sound you get from a Prokofiev orchestration when it’s done well live.”
Moody compared the piece to a Bellagio water fountain in Las Vegas. Things are going along predictably, and then water erupts from out of nowhere, surprising everybody.
“That’s how I think of this piece,” Moody said. “You don’t expect it, and all of a sudden something pops up. It’s really quite remarkable and exciting.”
And that adds two more reactions to Moody’s menu of orchestra emotions: Shock and awe.
THE ORCHESTRA’S opening week continues Oct. 5-6 with a pair of pops concerts featuring the music of Cole Porter and George Gershwin. Moody will lead two guest vocalists through a program that embodies the American musical spirit.
Both singers, Mike Eldred and Jennifer Hope Willis, have extensive credits singing on Broadway. Eldred performed in Portland last year as a PSO guest, while Willis will be making her debut with the orchestra.
In separate interviews, both said they were attracted to the program because of their love of the composers. Both Gershwin and Porter hold a special place in America’s musical legacy, and the opportunity to sing a concert of their combined works was an opportunity too great to pass up.
“Everybody loves this music. What’s not to like? They both know how to write a song,” Eldred said.
For a full season schedule, go to portlandsymphony.org.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be reached at 791-6457 or: