For listeners in the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s constituency who complain that the orchestra’s programming is too predictably wedded to the standard canon, the concert Robert Moody conducted at Merrill Auditorium on Tuesday evening must have seemed an oasis of novelty.

The program included a suite (No. 1) from Prokofiev’s “Cinderella,” a ballet that ranks low on any list of Prokofiev’s most frequently played scores. Haydn’s Symphony No. 69 was also a choice from off the beaten path. And the program’s centerpiece, David Del Tredici’s “An Alice Symphony,” is a 1969 work that Del Tredici himself never heard performed in full until 1991.

In terms of both length and musical language, it is the orchestra’s most ambitious offering this season.

Del Tredici, who was present for the performance and spoke about the work with Moody at the pre-concert talk, has had an unusual career. Like many composers of his generation (he is 78), he was devoted in his early years to harmonic and rhythmic complexity, and some of his early works – for example, “Syzygy” (1966), for voice and orchestra – remain classics of that style. But by the mid-1970s, he had reconsidered his language. He largely jettisoned atonal harmony, except when he found it expressively useful, and he adopted a more straightforward melodic style.

Some of Del Tredici’s early followers were aghast. But other composers, including John Corigliano and George Rochberg, were following a similar path, and soon Del Tredici was in the vanguard of a new movement, neo-romanticism, which has helped win back listeners who were put off by atonal complexity, and has been embraced by two generations of younger composers as well.

“An Alice Symphony” is a transitional score, composed when Del Tredici was having doubts about his former style but was not fully ready to jump ship. An early installment in his expansive collection of works inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, the symphony is cast in four intensely theatrical movements, with a soprano soloist who alternates between declaimed narrative and virtuosic singing, and stretches of atonal, seemingly cacophonous orchestral scoring that evokes the bizarreness of Alice’s dream world.

Margaret Carpenter Haigh delivered the soprano line deftly and amusingly, and it cannot have been easy, given the stream of high Es in the final section, to say nothing of the frequent shifts from speaking to singing. Moody drew vigorous playing, most notably from the winds, brass and percussion, which do much of the heavy lifting, with banjo, mandolin and the sliding, eerie electronic timbres of the theremin adding to the score’s otherworldliness.

Among the scenes Del Tredici set are Alice’s odd encounter with the Queen of the Lobsters (in “The Lobster Quadrille”) and the White Rabbit’s testimony against the Knave of Hearts (in “Who Stole the Tarts?”), and to bring them to life, the orchestra collaborated with the Portland Ballet. Roberto Forleo’s evocative choreography was danced by Kaitlyn Hayes as a nervous-looking Alice, Derek Clifford as the White Rabbit and Erica Deisi as the Queen of the Lobsters, along with a lobster quartet. The colorful costumes were made by students and faculty at the Maine College of Art.

Del Tredici said in the pre-concert talk that he had always dreamed of having “An Alice Symphony” choreographed. Still, it seemed odd that it was the only work danced on a program that included some actual ballet music. Perhaps the orchestra felt that the Del Tredici needed the visual assist more than the Prokofiev. Even if the “Cinderella” music is played infrequently, Prokofiev’s accent and fingerprints are comfortably familiar.

Both here and in the Haydn, for which Moody used a reduced ensemble of about 30, the orchestra gave polished, polite performances. There was nothing specifically wrong: The notes were well-tuned and in their place, and balances, tone and accenting were beyond reproach. But moments when the playing had that edge-of-the-seat, about to catch fire quality were few and fleeting.

There was much more of that kind of energy in the Del Tredici. Both in the pre-concert talk and in the hall, Moody said that people write him letters and even approach him on the street asking for more new music. If that’s so – and the nearly full Merrill Auditorium suggested that it is – maybe it’s a request he should honor more assertively.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: kozinn

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