October 1, 2013

Portland Symphony Orchestra opens season

Concert shows there’s no substitute for live music.

By Christopher Hyde

The Portland Symphony Orchestra opened its season at Merrill Auditorium on Sunday with proof positive that there is no substitute for live music. There were nuances in the performances of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony that have never been captured by electronics.

concert review

WHAT: Portland Symphony Orchestra season opener

WHERE: Merrill Auditorium, Portland

WHEN: Sunday

As one example, how many people have heard the piano part of the Prokofiev Fifth?

The most striking revelation came with an awe-inspiring performance of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major Op. 58, by Orli Shaham, that earned, for once, a well-deserved standing ovation. Shaham demonstrated that there is another way of “singing” on the piano – trills and passage work so rapid and even that the result is a sustained tone rather than individual notes.

It seems to me that the effect is exactly what Beethoven wanted, not meretricious ornamentation or show-off virtuosity, although there was plenty of that in what is essentially a composer’s performance piece.

The rapport between soloist and orchestra, under music director Robert Moody, was evident from the beginning, in dynamics, the back-and-forth of phrases and, above all, the precision of entrances and full stops. Shaham also offered a long cadenza that was an object lesson in recapitulation and development of themes, full of interest at every turn.

The first movement was so exciting that there was a smattering of applause instead of the usual respectful silence. The pianist turned on the bench, smiled and said, “If anyone would like to applaud ...” and everyone did.

After one of Beethoven’s portentous and short slow movements, piano and orchestra took off on the rollicking Rondo: Vivace, in which Shaham demonstrated power as well as brilliance, tossing off every difficulty as if it were child’s play. The only word for the style of the concluding bars was insouciance. After a perfectly shaped climax and its abrupt cut-off, it took only an instant for the audience to jump to its collective feet.

The enthusiasm carried over into a fine performance of the Prokofiev Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100, which fully revealed the composer’s miraculous power of invention and love of country.

The orchestra struggled for a few moments near the beginning of the dense first movement, as if not certain which of many threads to follow, but that was soon overcome with the triumphant awakening of the sleeping Russian giant. The rapid perpetual motion of the allegro was as precise as the Beethoven had been.

The waltz and sometimes brutal funeral march of the third movement were in the lush and melodic style of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

It segued into a ferocious battle scene, complete with machine guns, which the composer sarcastically titled Allegro Giocoso. After another perfectly executed climax, there should have been another standing ovation, but there was not. Were people in a hurry to get home? Is Prokofiev still too “modern” after 65 years?

The concert will be repeated Tuesday, and if there are still seats available, it is well worth hearing.

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be contacted at:classbeat@netscape.net
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