The three works that shared the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s program Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium were composed during a quarter century that saw the last embers of late Romanticism, and the first flickers of the vibrantly chaotic musical world of the 20th century. But the composers whose music Robert Moody selected for the program – Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev and Jean Sibelius – dealt with this stylistic shift in strikingly different ways.

Strauss and Sibelius essentially ignored it, taking the alternative view that there was more to be said in the old style. Both had, by then, developed deeply personal approaches, which they continued to pursue, and since both were revered symbols of their countries’ musical souls, by the time Modernism took hold, no one was going to force them in musical directions that didn’t interest them.

Prokofiev, on the other hand, working in Russia around the time of the Revolution, when upheaval was the norm, was taken with the innovations of his compatriot Igor Stravinsky and began working toward the steely sound that we identify with him now.

He is not yet there in the Violin Concerto No. 1 (Op. 19), the work on Sunday’s program, but you can hear him taking steps in that direction. Moody and the orchestra were joined for the Prokofiev by violinist Benjamin Beilman. At 26, Beilman is already a highly regarded interpreter, for reasons evident from the moment he played Prokofiev’s smoothly chiseled opening line. Beilman’s sound in the long opening movement was consistently velvety and focused, even in music that veers toward angularity near the end.

Some players endow these passages with greater astringency than Beilman brought to it, but Beilman clearly sees the concerto as a work conceived before Prokofiev had developed his acidic edge. You could argue the point, but Beilman made a strong case for that view, and adhered to it even in the speedily virtuosic Scherzo, where he briefly abandoned the velvet sound for a throatier tone, only to return to (and even expand upon) a warm, sweetly rounded sound in the dreamlike finale.

Moody and Beilman seemed of a single mind about the work, with Moody drawing from his players a performance that matched Beilman’s in suppleness. They accomplished this, it turns out, on a single rehearsal: Moody and Beilman both spent part of Saturday at Maine Medical Center with food poisoning, and although Moody made it to part of the Saturday afternoon dress rehearsal, Beilman was unable to attend. Both seemed fit and energetic on Sunday.

Moody opened the program with “Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche” (”Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks,” Op. 28), Strauss’ depiction of the antics (and execution) of a medieval German folk figure. When Strauss composed the work, in 1895, Modernism was not yet an issue, although there was a clear restlessness among composers, who were reaching for modes of expression beyond those they had been exploring all through the 19th century. For Strauss, the solution was to transform the orchestra into a paintbrush, canvas and palette, and to paint vividly pictorial, dramatic scenes in his scores.

That is why Strauss’ tone poems are a playground for conductors and orchestra players, none more so than this richly episodic piece, with its recurring horn and string themes, its bursts of playful wind writing, and brass scoring that varies from punchy to dour to menacing.

Such picturesque writing demands precision playing and timing, and the orchestra did not entirely achieve that, though its infelicities of intonation and unity were fleeting. But the painterly touch that Moody brought to the work made these flaws seem relatively minor.

Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 (Op. 82), completed in 1919, is a grander, more deeply personal score than the Strauss, but is also suffused with memorable, often exhilarating themes and rich orchestral color. Here the orchestra played with greater solidity and consistency, but Moody’s reading was oddly bland, yielding a performance that was attractive on the surface, but rarely touched on this great score’s emotional depths.

After the Strauss, with its prominent horn theme, Moody paid tribute to John Boden, the orchestra’s principal hornist for the last 35 years. Boden plans to retire at the end of December. He received a bouquet and a standing ovation.

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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