When I arrived in Portland last May, I had barely any preconceptions about musical life here. But I was eager to discover what the city and its environs had to offer. A year of reviewing concerts for the Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram has given me a thorough tour of Greater Portland’s classical music world and has answered many of my questions.

In purely musical terms, much of what I’ve heard has been impressive. There are also aspects of the way music is presented here that could be reconsidered and re-energized, to both musicians’ and listeners’ benefit.

One pleasant surprise has been the Portland Symphony Orchestra. On its best nights, it is better than I expected it to be, given the relatively few concerts it plays. There were times, during my early encounters with the orchestra, when its playing struck me as trim and focused, but overly cautious, as if the musicians were afraid that playing with energy and passion might tip the performances into chaos. That skittishness vanished halfway into the season, when the playing grew livelier, with first chair players turning in admirable performances in solo passages. I’m hoping that this tepid start and gradual thaw is not a predictable seasonal arc. We’ll find out in October.

In chamber music, two excellent string quartets, the Portland and the DaPonte, each present a series, and the DaPonte even offered one of the few compelling examples of thematic programming I’ve seen in Portland, with its “Enemies of the State” concert, a program devoted to composers who fell afoul of authoritarian rulers. The chamber music and recital offerings by Portland Ovations were consistently memorable, not surprisingly, since the organization imports ensembles and soloists with international reputations.

More puzzling, to me, is that Ovations has no competition. Its performances are well attended, but classical music is only part of its mission, and though its offerings are certainly season highlights, there are only a handful each year. You would think an enterprising promoter might see an opportunity here.

Or an existing organization could take it on. In other cities, orchestras (the Chicago Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for example) run sideline presentation businesses; perhaps this could be a needed moneymaker for the Portland Symphony Orchestra. The Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, which presents only a handful of organ concerts during the season, could perhaps profitably expand its purview.

As I suggested in a recent review, the Portland Chamber Music Festival, which already presents occasional winter concerts, could expand its role to fill this gap. There is no reason most of southern Maine’s chamber music activity should be crammed into a few weeks of summer festivals, as it is now. Well, OK, there is a reason – musicians prefer Maine’s summers to its winters. But they go where promoters invite them, and they play in colder places than Portland.

Early music and new music are areas where I wish there was more activity. The Portland Conservatory of Music presents weekend-long festivals devoted to each – the Portland Early Music Festival, in October, and the Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival, in April. But there is some promising expansion, as well.

The Portland String Quartet – Dean Stein, 1st violin; Ronald Lantz, 2nd violin; Julia Adams, viola; and Patrick Owen, cello (front) – is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

The Portland String Quartet – Dean Stein, 1st violin; Ronald Lantz, 2nd violin; Julia Adams, viola; and Patrick Owen, cello (front) – is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Timothy Burris, the lutenist who directs the early music festival, also offers an interestingly varied early music series at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke. And this spring saw the first installment of the Portland Bach Festival, which brought a respectable slate of singers and players who specialize in Baroque style to Portland, where they collaborated with the Oratorio Chorale and other local musicians.

In new music, the Portland Conservatory is one of several organizations (the Portland Chamber Music Festival and the Seal Bay Festival are others) that have been collaborating with SPACE Gallery to present cutting-edge new-music concerts. The gallery itself has also been expanding its presentations to include classical and genre-bending concerts, with music by young composer-players who combine strands of modernism, pop, jazz and world music to create something fresh. This is an important trend in the new-music world, and Portland should hear more of it.

In fact, speaking as someone who spent four or five nights a week in concert halls in the 40 years before I moved here, I’d say that Portland needs more of everything. I fully recognize that a city of 66,000 cannot support, physically or financially, the depth and breadth of cultural life that a city of 8.4 million can, and actually, looking at those numbers, Portland is doing amazingly well, if you think about it proportionally.

Cellist Joshua Roman joins the Portland Symphony Orchestra for its Oct. 9 and 10 concerts. Photo courtesy of PSO

Cellist Joshua Roman joins the Portland Symphony Orchestra for its Oct. 9 and 10 concerts. Photo courtesy of PSO

But the arts don’t work proportionally. Ensembles thrive when they play a lot, and musicians, audiences and the culture at large benefit when there is more to choose from.

Look at Portland’s microscopic operatic life. The two PORTOpera productions I’ve seen drew large, enthusiastic crowds. But those listeners have to take what they’re given – a single big production (invariably of a top-20 work) and a single chamber opera, every summer. There are no choices, and between summers, the best opera fans can do is scavenge for piano-accompanied student performances at the University of Southern Maine.

Opera is expensive, and ticket sales, even for sell-outs, don’t come near to covering the costs. That’s what boards are for. Right now, PORTOpera’s board has to raise money for a pair of productions, only one of them full-scale. But it must think bigger than that, so that PORTOpera can do an opera company’s job, which is to present both classics and recent work, not to mention great singers alongside promising newcomers.

The Portland Symphony’s board should think in grander terms, too. For anyone who believes that an orchestra’s principal business should be classical music (including new classical music), the PSO’s 2016-17 program layout is disheartening. Of its 38 scheduled concerts, only 11 (eight programs, three with repeats) are classical. The rest are pops concerts (eight), family children’s shows (seven) or “The Magic of Christmas” (12) – all important to the revenue stream, but not how these musicians should be spending more than two-thirds of their stage time.

Consider the implications, for the orchestra as an institution, of making classical programming a minority concern. In its eight programs, the orchestra will play a mere 21 works, only two of which (Mason Bates’ Cello Concerto and Dan Forrest’s “In Paradisum”) were composed in the 21st century. The musicians, moreover, do not earn a living wage from their PSO work, and therefore freelance elsewhere, mainly with Boston-area ensembles. The lure of better-paying jobs outside Portland means that players, including principals, are sometimes unavailable for PSO performances, leaving the orchestra to engage substitutes. So in a sense, the PSO’s full membership works together even less frequently than its schedule suggests.

Working together is crucial for developing a cohesive sound. Conversely, working with guest conductors is important, too. An orchestra’s music director shapes its sonic personality, but guests bring the players – and, not incidentally, the audience – alternative views of repertory works and different approaches to sound. The PSO’s eight-program schedule does not have much room for guest conductors. Music director Robert Moody conducts most of them (all but two this coming season), which is fine – but only part of the experience the orchestra should offer its listeners.

Like opera, running an orchestra is expensive. But the PSO is the city’s flagship ensemble, and as it begins its 91st season, it should be dreaming of becoming one of the country’s top orchestras, not treading water. If its board cannot find the money and muster the creativity to expand its season and reach for the dream, it will flounder aimlessly. From what I’ve heard of it, over the past year, it’s too good for that to be its fate.

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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Correction: A fact box for this story was revised at 11:11 a.m., Aug. 31, 2016, to state that the Portland String Quartet’s Sept. 25 concert at Woodfords Congregational Church celebrates the group’s 48th anniversary.