It was certainly worth braving the Siberian chill Tuesday night to hear the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “From Russia With Love” at Merrill Auditorium. It is not often that any program is as entirely satisfying, technically and artistically, as this one was.

It began with a world premiere of Elliott Schwartz’s “Diamond Jubilee,” commissioned by the PSO in celebration of the composer’s 75th birthday. The three-part work, which I call a symphony, paints musical portraits of three 25-year periods, each prefaced by a projected word list that prompts memories and interspersed with photographs of its major events and people, including Schwartz and his family.

Musically, it can be thought of as a mosaic, composed of carefully selected fragments of an era, held together by underlying motifs to form a coherent and attractive whole.

I was given the score earlier, and in hearing the well-realized work was surprised to find that some of the composer’s signature touches were among the high points, rather than diversions. The vocally harmonized chord provided a moment of tranquility. And the pianissimo cell-phone chorus had the audience so hushed and attentive that you could have heard a pin drop.

That passage sounded like a mysterious music box. Either it was scripted or orchestra members have extremely good taste in ring tones.

Each section was presaged by a solo, first by clarinetist Thomas Parchman, then by violist Laura Kennedy and finally by John Boden on French horn. They were hauntingly melodic, especially for a 12-tone motif, but Schwartz couldn’t resist putting some raspberry-like wolf notes in Boden’s score.


After the performance, the composer was awarded a “Sentiments of the (Maine) Legislature” letter, presented by Rep. David Webster, offering congratulations on his illustrious career in music.

“Diamond Jubilee” is the kind of work that merits additional hearings to experience its full effect. Fortunately, the performance will be broadcast by MPBN on Feb. 7.

Then came the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto, with soloist Andrew von Oeyen. It has never been played better. The lyrical passages contained beauties not heard on a recording, and the brilliant finale, which has both a glorious melody and virtuoso coruscations, such as prestissimo double glissandos, had to be seen to be believed. In spite of a standing ovation and multiple curtain calls, the young pianist did not play an encore. Bravo!

Even after what had come before, the final work on the program, the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 in D minor (Op. 47), more than held its own. Music director Robert Moody seems to have so identified with the music that the composer himself would have been delighted with its emotional effect.

Written in response to Stalinist criticism, the symphony alternates between a mockery of socialist realism (which is still exciting) and artistically controlled despair. The largo, a cry of anguish, is almost unbearable in its intensity.

The satyrical waltz that makes up the second movement is one of the high points of savage irony in music, complete with a donkey’s bray. Shostakovich seems to be saying, “You want music of the people, I’ll give you music of the people, in spades.”


The real irony, however, is that the parodies, like the switch to a major key at the end, or the timpani battle calls, still work their magic. If Stalin had listened to the performance with any degree of attention, he would have had the composer executed, but he probably liked it too much. 

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


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