When an orchestra is in the market for a new music director, any appearance by a guest conductor will inevitably be seen as an audition, although sometimes, to paraphrase Freud, a guest conducting engagement is just a guest conducting engagement. Larger orchestras like to hear their candidates in more than one program, and in visits that last more than a few days, so that the musicians can get a sense of what the conductor is like in rehearsal and in different kinds of works.

How this process works for an orchestra that plays as few classical programs as the Portland Symphony Orchestra – and has few guests – is something of a mystery. Administration and board members could conceivably travel to hear further performances by the front-runners, but that doesn’t give the players the information they need about what it’s like to work with these directors. To an observer, the system seems barely viable. But one way or another, Robert Moody is leaving at the end of next season, and a new conductor will take his place.

On Sunday afternoon, David Neely conducted the orchestra in works by Britten, Debussy and Chopin at Merrill Auditorium. Neely is a less flashy conductor than Moody, but flashiness is not an important component of a conductor’s toolbag, except to marketing departments, whose opinions should always be discounted. He conducts with clarity, energy and a sense of purpose, and with gestures that can be broad and communicative, but generally seem economical, with little wasted motion.

Neely’s resume suggests that his experience is mainly in opera, but with a hefty amount of contemporary opera to his credit. That is heartening, and it is tempting to see his thoughtfully shaped performances of two 20th century seascapes – Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes,” from “Peter Grimes,” and Debussy’s “La Mer” – as signs of his facility with post-Romantic music of a particularly painterly sort.

Not that either of those works can honestly be called contemporary now. The Debussy, composed in 1905, joined the standard canon long ago, and the Britten, though 40 years newer, is more conservative. It would have been useful to have a bona fide new work on the program, to see what Neely made of it.

Still, his Britten had a simplicity and directness that caught not only the naturalistic description that drives the work – the evocative shimmer of the winds and strings in its “Dawn” movement, the turbulent strings and brass, and percussive thunder of the closing “Storm” – but also the current of tragedy that runs through “Peter Grimes” as a whole.

Neely’s Debussy began puzzlingly. It had the kind of laser-like clarity, in which individual instrumental profiles stand out clearly, that you often hope for in an orchestral performance – but not here. What you want in the opening of “La Mer” is a more ethereal sound that captures the hazy mystery of the sea just before daybreak. Neely’s focus soon softened sufficiently to create that effect, and his accounts of the final two movements – “The Play of the Waves” and “Dialogue of the Wind and Sea” – where Debussy does require the spotlight to fall on individual wind and brass lines, Neely’s performance and the orchestra’s could not have been more magnificently wrought.

After the intermission, Diane Walsh joined the orchestra as the soloist in Chopin’s Concerto No. 2. Walsh presented Chopin as more of a Classicist than a Romantic, partly by pedaling lightly, and partly by playing the solo line with a clarity that focused on its rationality rather than its perfume.

It was an interestingly modern approach, and because she did not jettison the work’s Romanticism entirely – it can’t really be done, Chopin’s lyrical proclivities being what they were – Walsh’s reading also had a buoyant, singing quality. For listeners who craved a more traditional approach to Romantic virtuosity, Walsh gave a dazzling performance of the Liszt-Paganini “La Campanella” as an encore.

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


Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: