March 17, 2010

PSO delivers worthy premiere for Bowdoin composer


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The long-awaited world premiere of Vineet Shende's ''Three Longfellow Poems'' Sunday at Merrill Auditorium did not disappoint. This is definitely a major symphonic work, densely written, expansive and lovingly performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Paul Polivnik, with soprano Elizabeth Weigle, the Oratorio Chorale and the Bowdoin Chamber Choir.

All three movements -- ''Daybreak,'' ''The Warning'' and ''The Occultation of Orion'' -- are highly dramatic, perhaps overly so in some instances.

The ocean breeze at dawn, so well portrayed in the opening, becomes a hurricane that threatens to blow down Longfellow's church bell before subsiding to a whisper over the graveyard.

There are also huge contrasts in the second and third movements as Samson pulls down the temple of the Philistines and Diana confronts Orion in the heavens (the moon obscuring the constellation), but they work very well.

The demands of the music often obscure the clarity of the text, making it necessary for the program to include the poems themselves, but that's true of most orchestral settings. In some stanzas, Longfellow's ideas outstrip his poetic gifts anyway.

The use of the flowing-water ''hope'' theme, first heard in the clarinets during ''Daybreak,'' works well to unify the inverted arc of the composition, from hope to despair to renewed hope for an end to the ''reign of violence'' symbolized by Orion's club.

It is particularly striking, broadened and amplified, in the final movement, in which the audience seems surrounded by an angelic choir. The chorus, orchestra and soprano were joined effectively by members of the Bowdoin Chamber Choir high in the balconies on both sides.

I was particularly impressed by Shende's mathematically calculated musical descriptions of the planets, which are every bit as good as Gustav Holst's. The music brought me back to early childhood days in the hushed atmosphere of New York's Hayden Planetarium at its program on the music of the spheres.

Shende, an assistant professor of music at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, originally wrote the work to complement a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and it makes equally uncompromising demands on the soprano.

Weigle managed them flawlessly, including some incredibly high entire passages.

The orchestra was at its best, creating unusual harmonies and timbres, such as Shende's favorite trombone snarl. His style itself is hard to characterize, dissonant in some places and with celestial harmonies in others, but unusually accessible at first hearing. It has similarities with Howard Hanson's ''Lament for Beowulf.''

The program began with a precise but not terribly exciting reading of Haydn's Symphony No. 95 in C Minor. The orchestra had more fun with Richard Strauss' incredible Suite from ''Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,'' (Opus 60), which followed the Shende work. I think I saw Polivnick lunging a sword arm toward the violin section in ''The Fencing Master.''

Christopher Hyde's Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:

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