To open the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s 92nd season, Robert Moody conducted a program on Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium that seemed self-consciously balanced, as if it were meant as a reminder of the three crucial pillars of a modern orchestra’s repertory.

The Beethoven Fourth Symphony, which began the program, points to the preservationist aspect of an orchestra’s mission and is also an installment in the PSO’s three-year Beethoven cycle – a symbol of that mission writ large.

Mason Bates’ Concerto for Cello, a 2014 work by a popular young American composer, suggests a commitment to contemporary music, although given that it is one of only two 21st century works planned for the season, a reasonable listener could wonder if such a commitment really exists. And Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” demonstrated the orchestra’s ability to let its hair down with the kind of full-throttle, coloristic showpiece that audiences find thrilling.

The Respighi was composed in 1924, the year the Portland Symphony gave its first concert. The orchestra’s founders would undoubtedly have endorsed the approach this concert presented. But they would surely be puzzled by the organization’s broader programming philosophy, now that classical concerts account for less than half of the PSO’s schedule (even if you count its various family programs as classical), with holiday music and symphonic pops as the largest part of its schedule.

We should probably be thankful that Moody’s program gave us what ought to be, rather than what is. The conductor and his players made a gratifyingly fine show of it, too. Moody’s account of the Beethoven Fourth was flexible, nuanced and shapely, and it accomplished one thing a performance of the Fourth ought to do: By pointing up the work’s thematic richness, its sudden dynamic shifts, its manipulations of Classical form and the brisk interplay in its final movements, Moody had you wondering why this compact but rich work is an also-ran among Beethoven’s nine symphonies.

Bates, who was born in 1977 and is the composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center, is known for works that combine electronic and pop elements with classical forms and textures. The Cello Concerto is scored more conventionally, and its lyrical solo line – played here by Joshua Roman, for whom Bates composed it – sings and soars in the best tradition of the Romantic concerto.

It is a pleasing, accessible piece, virtuosic but not flashy. But it is hardly staid neo-Romanticism. Its orchestral texture is atmospheric, fragmented and spacey, yet yields themes that gradually coalesce into cohesive elements with which the cello can interact (rather than simply play against). Still, the cello line is always the focal point, and Roman, who played the work from memory, lavished a lush, beautifully rounded tone on it, even in the section of the finale in which Bates has him play an extended passage with a guitar pick.

The Respighi, to which the concert’s second half was devoted, uses the orchestra as a grand paint box, and you can see why record companies so frequently made it the centerpiece of “Hi-Fi Spectacular” albums, during the early stereo years and in the transition from LP to CD: Vivid brass and wind flourishes, dark, melancholy string tone (in the peaceful evocation of a catacomb), piano and organ textures, antiphonal effects from brass players stationed in the balconies, and even bird calls – it’s all here, drafted into the service of bringing to life the composer’s vision of four sections of Rome.

Those who find Moody’s direction overly gymnastic had more evidence than usual here. Respighi’s waves of picturesque, climactic scoring, not to mention the need to cue the balcony musicians, are catnip for conductors who like to showboat. If you prefer a director in the mold of Fritz Reiner, whose gestures were subtle and often barely perceptible, Moody is not your man.

But results are the bottom line, and Moody had the orchestra – especially its winds, this time – sounding tight and energized in all three works. It should be interesting to see what they make of the centerpiece of their next outing, Bartok’s implacably dark, emotionally sharp-edged “Bluebeard’s Castle,” on Nov. 1.

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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