The Portland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by artistic director Robert Moody, gave one of its most exciting concerts of recent years Tuesday evening, including a work that featured seven of the orchestra’s principals.

It began with “Rumanian Folk Dances” for string orchestra, by Béla Bartók, which is Bartók for those who don’t like Bartók. Its seven short dances vary widely in character, but all have infectious rhythms, unusual melodies and just a hint of strangeness in their harmonies.

They are authentic and almost unembellished, the result of the composer’s years spent recording folk music throughout what was formerly the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The performance was light and lively, with near-perfect articulation of the complex rhythmic patterns. Concert master Charles Dimmick’s solo violin work was especially notable.

The next work on the program, while it couldn’t bear comparison with the Bartók, was equally unusual and well played: a Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion and Strings, by Swiss-born composer Frank Martin (1890-1974).

The principals were Lisa Hennessy on flute, Amanda Hardy on oboe, Thomas Parchman on clarinet, Janet Polk on bassoon, John Boden on horn, Joe Foley on trumpet, Nicholas Orovich on trombone, and John Tanzer on timpani.

All were given a chance to demonstrate their considerable talents, in solos and in concert.

While some parts of the concerto seemed derivative, it held interest throughout, offering an especially notable ticking-clock funeral march, with the indication “Misterioso ed elegante.” It also included harmonies that sounded like an organ point and a wonderful solo for Polk, which explored the lowest register of the bassoon, a treat one doesn’t often hear.

Two huge bronze bells at stage left, like props in an Alfred Hitchcock movie, indicated that something unusual was about to happen after intermission, and it did: a performance of Hector Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique” (Op. 14) that was, well, fantastic.

The orchestra was at the top of its form, with huge sonorities and a command of dynamics, from pianissimo to triple fortissimo, that could not have been bettered. The almost unbearably lengthy crescendos must have given Rossini the idea for his similar operatic overtures.

The waltz in the second movement – “Un bal” – is, to me, the best thing of its kind ever written, and that includes Strauss and Ravel. Nothing is perfect, but the PSO’s realization of it came close.

The “Marche au surplice” of the fourth movement was appropriately violent and exaggerated, like Berlioz’ conception itself. This time, the blade of the guillotine descended with full force.

The bells got to ring out during the final Witches’ Sabbath. Whatever the PSO had to pay to rent them was worth every penny. This is the kind of sound that only can be appreciated in a live performance. The images that the music conjures up are incredible, including a chorus of giant grasshoppers elicited from a technique in the strings.

I haven’t yet mentioned John Tanzer’s virtuoso performance in the Martin concerto because, as good as it was, it was overshadowed by his outstanding work in the symphony.

Would I change anything? The lengthy scene in the country of the third movement might have held more menace, in contrast to the bucolic atmosphere, but that is only because of my conception of the action Berlioz intended to describe.

In general, the reading well deserved its long standing ovation for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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

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