The Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Op. 43) has lost none of its magic.

The performance at Merrill Auditorium by pianist Bryan Wallick and the Portland Symphony Orchestra, under artistic director Robert Moody, drew one of the largest audiences the orchestra has ever had for a matinee.

One of the fascinations of the piece is the anticipation built up for the popular “love” theme while the composer plays with variations on a devilish Dies Irae and the Paganini theme. (Legend has it that the first rock-star violinist sold his soul to the devil in exchange for virtuosity on the instrument and the love of a beautiful woman.)

I can’t resist quoting the guitar player in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” who, when accused of making the same deal, says of his soul, “Well, I wasn’t using it.”

Wallick made the most of the suspense, with a technique that was almost too perfect. At the beginning of the Rhapsody one got the impression that he was tossing off variation after variation as if they were child’s play. It was a bit disconcerting, in that it almost caused a runaway accelerando as the orchestra struggled to keep up.

Some sections, such as the waltz that heralds the appearance of the love interest, seemed slow in comparison. Still, the rubato was excellent, the inner voices clearly articulated, and the love theme worth waiting for. A rousing finale led to an instant standing ovation.

Maestro Moody seemed determined to erase the memory of a less-than-perfect Brahms a couple of seasons ago, with a virtually flawless and carefully thought-out reading of the Symphony No. 3 in F Major (Op. 90).

The symphony may have been based upon a three note motif – FAF, standing for “frei aber froh” (free but happy), referring to Brahms’ avoidance of marital commitments. It does seem to explore various contented moods of a summer day, with only an occasional cloud.

The Andante, a perfect description of a perfect summer afternoon, is one of the great moments of Western music, and was given appropriately reverential treatment. After the opening allegro con brio, Moody waited for complete silence before beginning it.

Beethoven would have followed the calm with a storm. In the Brahms, it becomes a moment of wistful retrospection, poco allegretto, followed by a sunset that simply fades out.

While strings predominate in the symphony, Moody gave special attention to the woodwinds and brass choir, producing some lovely effects.

Did the performance finally bring to Maine the spiritual experience that Brahms should be? Not entirely – transcendence was lacking – but it was a very good try and deserved a rare standing ovation for a symphonic work.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. Contact him at:

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