The marketers who apply titles to the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s programs called the ensemble’s Tuesday evening concert at Merrill Auditorium “Tchaikovsky’s Fifth.” That’s logical enough: The Tchaikovsky was the largest of the program’s three works, and the most likely to lure ticket buyers. And as it turned out, the orchestra, led by guest conductor Stefan Vladar, gave it a terrific, high-energy performance.

Yet in some ways, the Tchaikovsky was upstaged by principal hornist John Boden’s stunning performance of Paul Hindemith’s “Concerto for Horn and Orchestra,” a 1949 work that, for good reason – the solo horn part is monstrously difficult – is rarely performed.

The pre-concert talk, by Charlton Smith, was devoted almost entirely to the Hindemith, partly because Smith felt that concertgoers were likely to find Hindemith’s language difficult, and he played the relatively short work (about 15 minutes) in its entirety, in a recording by Dennis Brain, the hornist for whom it was written, with Hindemith conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. So those who attended the talk heard the piece twice.

But Hindemith was no wild-eyed avant-gardist, and though his concerto embraces the gentlest of dissonances on occasion, its gestures and syntax are essentially those of late Romanticism, and it is packed with lyrical themes, both in the horn part and in the orchestral accompaniment.

Its finale takes a dark, brooding turn at times, and contrasts sharply with the lively first and second movements, but it offers a glimpse into Hindemith’s state of mind. World War II had been over for four years, but that era had been difficult for Hindemith, whose music was first embraced, then banned, then briefly embraced again, and finally labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis. He fled Germany in 1938 and settled in the United States in 1940. Surely a link between this fraught history and the concerto’s finale can be seen in the nostalgic poem Hindemith wrote, in archaic German, to supply rhythms for part of the horn line. The poem itself is not heard, but the hornist is mean to project its spirit through the instrument.

The French horn is a notoriously recalcitrant instrument, and Hindemith filled his score with challenges to test a hornists’ mettle, including rich, long-lined melodies, athletic leaps and perilous chromaticism, to say nothing of a nearly constant place in the spotlight that leaves a player little chance to rest and regroup. None of this seemed to faze Boden, whose playing was consistently smooth and warm-toned, and shaped with a clear, animated sense of character. The orchestra supported him with a gentle fluidity.


It was not Boden’s only star turn of the night. The second movement of the Tchaikovsky includes an exquisite horn solo, which Boden played with the same melting beauty he brought to the more lyrical passages of the Hindemith. And Charles Dimmick, the orchestra’s concertmaster, offered an equally shapely, and appealingly throaty account of the same theme when it returned at the end of the movement.

Elsewhere in the score, other principals shone brightly as well, most notably clarinetist Thomas Parchman, oboist Amanda Hardy and trumpeter Joe Foley. But as striking as the solo contributions were, the Tchaikovsky is sweeping, broad-boned music that puts the focus on the full ensemble and demands much of every section. Whatever complaints I had about tepid playing in the orchestra earlier this season were swept away by this thrillingly visceral performance. The orchestra played this music with all the heft and power it demands, and responded brilliantly to Vladar’s sharply accented, driven interpretation.

Vladar, an Austrian who is also a remarkable pianist, conducts with broad, balletic gestures and leaves little doubt about what he wants. He opened the program with a vivid, account of Mendelssohn’s “The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave),” and his performance of the Tchaikovsky was full of fine touches – not least, a solution to the finale’s false ending, which almost invariably draws premature applause. Vladar simply shorted the pause between the not-quite-ending and the start of the section that leads to the work’s real conclusion, leaving no time for interruption.

When an orchestra’s music director is leaving, as Robert Moody will be after the 2017-2018 season, guest conductors are always seen as potential successors. That may be premature here: The orchestra may have a couple seasons of guests to choose from after Moody leaves. But it could do far worse than to consider Vladar as an important contender.

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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