Guest conductor Timothy Myers guided the Portland Symphony Orchestra through a highly varied and exceptionally well-played program Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium.

It ranged through early and late Romantic through French impressionism to the beginning of the modern era, with Stravinsky’s “Firebird” Suite in the expanded 1945 version.

Strangely enough, the least successful reading of the afternoon was the Overture to “Euryanthe” by Carl Maria von Weber, which was by far the least difficult score. It seemed to lack focus and shrouded familiar melodies in over-attention to detail.

Maybe it was a sacrifice fly, because the following works on the program were home runs, beginning with a shimmering performance of Debussy’s early “Printemps.” It seems to show Debussy at the height of his powers while he was still a student in Rome, but a much later re-orchestration may have had something to do with that.

The second half contains a jazzy piano part, echoed by the orchestra, which is hard to reconcile with the original date of 1897.

Whatever its origin, it gives Mahler’s nature music, in the recently performed Symphony No. 3, some severe competition.

The Strauss Concerto No. 1 for Horn in E-flat Major is always good to hear, but soloist Jeff Nelson, formerly of the Canadian Brass Ensemble, made it exceptional with his clarity and purity of tone.

The rapidity of passages in the final semi-cadenza made one wonder how the young Strauss ever expected it to be played on a valveless horn.

What was most striking about the performance, however, was the way it presaged the works of decades later. At 19, Strauss had already developed the distinctive voice that is the mark of all great composers.

The second half of the program was devoted to the “Firebird” Suite, in one of the finest performances I have heard by the Portland Symphony Orchestra in many years, encompassing a huge range of dynamics, startling contrasts, lyricism, tone painting and orchestral color.

In some of the passages, it seemed as if an invisible choir were singing behind the instruments.

The final hymn lived up to its billing as one of the most stirring orchestral passages ever written.

Considering the program as a whole. it was similar to seeing the original of a Winslow Homer painting after a lifetime of reproductions.

There is absolutely no comparison, especially in compositions that emphasize tonal color, whose stunning effects are well beyond the capacity of electronics to record.

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

[email protected]


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