The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s concert Tuesday night at Merrill Auditorium was a striking demonstration of orchestral talent and the unequaled power of live music, but somehow it left one with the feeling of being a bit shortchanged.

Perhaps it was the shorter length of the program, played without intermission. More likely, it was the absence of any work of musical genius. Music Director Robert Moody might at least have fitted in a Rossini overture somewhere. 

Instead, the capacity audience was treated to John Adams’ Fanfare for Orchestra: “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” which was heard here recently and doesn’t wear well; some good movie music — John Williams’ Suite from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” — and Gustav Holst’s popular and pretentious “The Planets,” with the USM Chamber Singers offstage and unacknowledged during the applause.

My grandmother used to take me to the Hayden Planetarium, where I heard snippets of Holst. When I was finally able to buy the entire work, I was disappointed, and the feeling hasn’t abated. The suite has some memorable moments, such as the fascist bombast of “Mars, the Bringer of War,” and the ponderous humor of “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” (sic), but much of it is predictable mood music, and (dare I say it?) boring.

The “Uranus, the Magician” was surprisingly reminiscent of Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” written in 1897, but my favorite was “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age.”

I have always wondered why Earth was not included among the planets (and why they didn’t appear in astronomical order). Tuesday’s program solved one problem cleverly, by using the “Close Encounters” music as an introduction to “The Planets.” The segue worked quite well, since there is more than a passing similarity between the two pieces, especially in the tremolo atmosphere of the final “Neptune, the Mystic.”

The photographs of the planets, projected on a screen above the orchestra, were fascinating, but may have detracted from the music, since the physical realities of the actual planets were often at odds with the astrological images that Holst sought to convey.

As mentioned, however, the presentation did give a chance for the full resources of the orchestra to be heard, in all their glory, from the low notes of the doubled timpani, tubas and contrabassoon to the chiming of the celeste, which, for some reason, never comes across well in a recording. The same can be said of the “sadistic” wood blocks in “Fast Ride,” which transported me back to that great movie, “The World’s Fastest Indian.”

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

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