Now in his eighth season as music director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra and having announced that he would leave the orchestra after his 10th, Robert Moody opened the orchestra’s 91st season as a celebratory fanfare, with an emphasis on fireworks and grandeur. That seemed a reasonable approach. Programs that lean more decisively toward subtlety will follow later in the season, and in any case, it was not as if Moody presented nothing but potboilers on Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium.

Much of the celebration, after all, flowed from Berlioz’s majestic Te Deum, a work in which brilliant effects and deeply moving settings of the liturgical text are intertwined, with much demanded of the orchestra, multiple choirs, and tenor and organ soloists, to say nothing of the conductor charged with holding it all together. And because the work’s logistical demands and sheer heft keep it from being performed very often, it gave Moody legitimate bragging rights for presenting a rarity.

Moody opened the first half of the program, after a sturdy rendering of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” with Dvorák’s “Carnival” Overture, an explosion of cheerful energy. Dvorák composed this showpiece as the central panel of a trilogy meant to explore the forces of nature, life and love, and it remains the most popular of the three (the others, “In Nature’s Realm” and “Othello”) no doubt because the fast, loud flourishes and cymbal crashes of its opening and closing sections make it a fun listen.

It also offers a conductor a quick and easy way to show off an orchestra’s sound under extreme conditions. Moody, who told the audience that this overture was the first piece he ever conducted in public, during his college years, clearly knows its pitfalls, and he saw to it that his strings produced a big, robust sound that remained warm and rounded even in passages that can easily turn shrill. The brasses, winds and percussion seemed in fine shape here as well, and the winds had a moment to shine more brightly in their shapely rendering of the slower, gentler central section.

The rest of the first half was devoted to an installment of Moody’s three-year Beethoven symphony cycle, now in its second season. The work at hand was the Symphony No. 1 (Op. 21), a Haydnesque blend of courtly charm and playfulness, with only faint hints of the headstrong boundary-breaker that Beethoven would soon become. This is Beethoven in 1800, just shy of 30, in search of the aristocratic patronage on which composers at the turn of the 19th century still relied, and therefore eager to please rather than startle.

Moody offered an agreeably straightforward reading, and the orchestra responded with playing that was beyond reproach. Among its more appealing aspects – although this may have been unintended and even unwanted – was a bit of grittiness in the string attacks, particularly in the finale, that gave this polite score a quickly passing touch of rebelliousness. What I missed, in Moody’s reading, was nuance. Phrases were spun out with little in the way of purposeful shaping or shading, and with a scarcity of suppleness in the balance between the orchestra’s sections – the kind of thing that makes the difference between a performance presented as a flat canvas and one with depth as one of its dimensions.

That was a complaint that could not be leveled against Moody’s performance of Berlioz’s titanic score, which was carefully contoured to allow the text to be heard clearly despite the density of the scoring, and which honored Berlioz’s intention that the piece be more dramatic than purely devotional.

Moody’s performing forces were a fraction of the more than 900 singers and players available to Berlioz at the work’s 1855 premiere, but he fielded at least 300 musicians, including the Boston Children’s Chorus, the Masterworks Chorus of the Choral Art Society, and members of the Vox Nova Chamber Choir, as well as the orchestra, organist Ray Cornils, and René Barbera, the tenor soloist. These combined forces produced an enormous, rich sound, beautifully blended and balanced.

Barbera brought an attractive, well-projected Italianate tone to the Te Ergo Quaesumus movement. And Cornils’ contribution on the mighty Kotzschmar organ, apart from being invigorating on its own terms, was a reminder, if any were needed, of how lucky Portland is to have such an instrument in the hall where its orchestra plays: Many other orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, must make do with a portable electronic organ that no one considers adequate.

To a listener new to the orchestra, Sunday’s concert was an impressive demonstration of the power, focus and polish these players command. They also seem to command considerable attention among Portland’s music lovers. In the past couple of months, I have received more email and been engaged in more non-electronic conversations about the Portland Symphony than about any other aspect of the city’s musical life. Correspondents were very specific about what they like or dislike about the orchestra, its programming and Moody, and some offered detailed analyses of Moody’s work over the years. Whether I eventually come to agree with any of these passionately argued views – a single concert is not enough to go by – is beside the point. Far more interesting, to me, is the level of engagement the orchestra clearly inspires.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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