The 89th concert season of the Portland Symphony Orchestra continued with a concert at Merrill Auditorium on Tuesday. For this concert, the orchestra was led by guest conductor Tito Munoz.

It has been my experience that the orchestra is on its best behavior when there is a guest conductor, and this time was no exception. The orchestra played brilliantly on this occasion, incredibly so because I did not notice any cause and effect between what I saw and what I heard.

Munoz surely knew his music, I will grant him that. The orchestra likewise knew their music, and it was fortunate for all that they did. My conducting teacher, the late Pierre Monteux might well have observed however, that Munoz knew his music from the outside. His beat varied from small and precise, to wide indiscriminate arcs. On occasion, he would over conduct, molding a particular phrase, in the celli for example, leaving the double basses to navigate plucked string passages on their own. Somehow they did.

On too many occasions, he turned his back on the lower strings entirely to shape a phrase in the first violins, and since the planets were in the proper orbit, the rest of the orchestra kept pace. The balance of the orchestra was not always good because the trombones ”“ among others ”“ must have overdosed on their vitamins or whatever they had beforehand. On the plus side, tempi and changes of tempi were always right and precise, but I can’t figure out just why this happened. Perhaps these were worked out in rehearsal, and the musicians were on their toes and remembered.

The program was a varied one, which attracted a goodly crowd of music lovers who braved freezing temperatures to attend. The program began with the overture to the opera, the Magic Flute by Mozart.

This is a gem of a composition, full of life and charming. The architecture of the music is perfect, with everything in its place, except the releases of some chords, which tended to conclude on the installment plan. This was followed by a Concerto for Flute by Aram Khachaturian, arranged from the original version for violin by J. P. Rampal.

The soloist was Lisa Hennessy who gave a brilliant account of the work. I suspect that she must have been ill, because she needed to drink some water between movements. Yes, the version for flute “worked,” but Mr. Rampal shouldn’t have made the effort as musically the piece has several lovely moments imbedded within 20 minutes of tedium. Munoz followed Hennessy very well after what appeared to be an initial disagreement of tempi. Hennessy’s tone was full and sonorous, and she played the work musically. She received a very warm reception for her efforts.

For my taste, I love the Gayne Ballet and the suite taken from it by Khachaturian because each excerpt is short, brilliantly scored and there is no need for development. This concerto does have several nice tunes in it, particularly the second motive in the first movement. However, he did not feel at home in an extended form and the stretches between the themes leave much to be desired.

The sole work after intermission was the 8th Symphony by Antonin Dvorak. (It used to be known at the 4th.) Dvorak was a symphonist, knew his orchestra and this work showed it. There were many notable performers that distinguished themselves in this work, the solo winds and horns in particular, who were recognized on the conclusion of the symphony.

The violins sounded more sonorous than I have heard them previously and their ensemble was meritorious, especially the phrase in the slow movement that echoed do-sol-do-sol-do in dotted rhythm.

Sometimes a conductor is just plan lucky, as when Munoz stopped conducting entirely while the clarinets played alone and played together, and the orchestra counted their measures accurately and did not lose their place. The orchestra and conductor received a standing ovation for their efforts. As I stated, the PSO played extraordinarily well and deserved the ovation. The concert will be broadcast on Maine Public Broadcasting Network on Wednesday, March 12 at 8 p.m.

— Dr. Gold is a composer/conductor and an arts reviewer for the Journal Tribune.