The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s celebration of the cello, Tuesday night at Merrill Auditorium, encompassed some good and unusual music, with or without music director Robert Moody’s favorite instrument.

In fact, the opening surprise, Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasiliero, No. 1, scored for eight cellos alone, was the least effective piece on the program, in spite of excellent playing by all eight, including Moody himself, conducted by Robert Lehmann.

Villa-Lobos, although he loved the instrument, makes it assume all the roles in a Bach-like chamber orchestra, rather than exploiting its many virtues, including power, to flavor, sounded thinner than expected.

The next item on the program, Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Cellos in G Minor (RV 531) played by guest artists Joel Noyes and Brian Thornton, was stronger, rather like dueling cellos, with considerable virtuosity but little for the orchestra to do except echo the sentiments of the protagonists.

The real surprise of the evening was a delightful Concerto for Two Cellos and Orchestra by David Ott (b. 1947), which reminded me of Samuel Barber in style and tone color, but with some very un-Barber-like orchestral outbursts. These were even more effective when rising out of a smooth melodic surface.

Noyes and Thornton did it full justice, with a beautiful song-like andante cantabile and a major cadenza that sounded improvised rather than written out — perhaps a bit of both. It was fun to watch the pair perform. If they were a comedy team Noyes would be the straight man and Thornton, who seemed to delight in everything he played, the comedian.

After intermission came Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture, chosen for its cello part in the less famous opening section. When the trumpets sounded, there was a gasp of recognition from the audience, as the Lone Ranger burst onto the scene. Hearing that familiar music live, without the speakers crackling from the volume, brought back “the days of yesteryear” in full color.

Another guilty pleasure was the final work on the program, the Shostakovich Symphony No. 1 in F Minor, written when the composer was 18. The symphony has so many brilliant turns of orchestration and contrast that it’s like watching a three-ring circus, complete with clowns and high-wire acts, but with a note of menace throughout.

Perhaps the key to the work is knowing that the composer’s day job was accompanying silent films on the piano. One can almost hear him thinking “What I couldn’t do with a full orchestra!’ “

The lento third movement includes a large cello part that begins a la Rachmaninoff and progresses into an agitated whirlwind of sound. This long section, like a protracted funeral march, is followed by a tremendous percussion solo introducing the short and furious finale.

Moody and the orchestra were able to make this fantastic kaleidoscope into a Kandinsky painting that well deserved its standing ovation.

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

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