The first concert in the classical series by the Portland Symphony Orchestra took place on the Jan. 15 with a repeat performance on the Jan. 17.

On a cold but sunny afternoon, Merrill Auditorium was packed with music lovers. There were no electric guitars, flashing lights nor vocalists on the program. In fact, the program featured a relatively unknown guest conductor and a semi-retired pianist.

The conductor was David Neeley, music director and principal conductor of the Des Moines (Iowa) Metro Opera and director of orchestral studies and head of the orchestral conducting program at the University of Kansas. The piano soloist was Diane (sic) Walsh, formerly associate professor of music at Mannes College for 32 years,and in the fall of 2015, visiting artist in residence at Colby College.

What a PR hype could not suggest was that both individuals are immensely gifted, talented and experienced professionals. They are all that and more.

The program was an eclectic one. The opening work, “Four Sea Interlude from (the opera) Peter Grimes,” by Benjamin Britten was composed in 1945, and while it is performed it is not performed with great frequency. It is a challenging work for conductor and orchestra alike. Mr. Neeley is not a commanding figure on the podium, that is until he starts to conduct. For this program, he conducted by heart, knew his music and communicated his wishes clearly to the orchestra all the while maintaining a clear beat. He conducted with passion and musicality.

The challenge in the Britten as well as with the Debussy that followed is that there are frequent dynamic as well as changes of tempi. It is not a simple matter to get more than 60 musicians to think and play as one. (It is something they tend to resist doing!) If the past was any guide, the PSO has been on their best behavior when there is a visiting maestro.

Their performance today was no exception. Just as a thoroughbred horse instantly feels that his rider knows what he is doing, an orchestra usually sizes up a conductor within the first three seconds and decides if they will follow him (or her) or that they will simply allow him to tag along for the ride. Wisely they felt that he knew exactly what he was doing. The work by Britten established his musical credentials.

However, it was in the following work La Mer by Claude Debussy that he earned by respect. Observing him during the Britten I suspected something that was confirmed in the Debussy. Whatever his gestures were, there were no peculiar mannerisms, everything was determined by bringing the written score to life, no more but no less.

He reminded me of a gentleman I studied with, Pierre Monteux. Readers, I can pay him no greater compliment. While the orchestra in this work reflected the philosophy of being “all you can be” and their performance garnered very high marks in every section, I would be less than candid if I did not relate that there were moments that were less than optimal. The divided celli in the second of the three movements was one such place. The reader as well as the listener should be aware that “La Mer” is in less than well rehearsed professional hands, a series of accidents waiting to happen. That they did not is a credit to all of them.

The sole work after intermission was the “2nd Piano Concerto” by Chopin. The soloist was Diane Walsh. She is a formidable interpreter of Chopin. Her touch can be compared to a musical spinning of webs of delicate phrases. She performed with grace, impeccable technique and a tone so delicate as one wonders why it is often so lacking in other pianists. This concerto is correctly described as one for piano with orchestra. Kudos to the double basses for their unison pizziccati (plucked notes.) She received a long standing ovation and performed a Lizst transcription as an encore.

The concert will be aired on Maine Public Classical radio on  Feb. 1.

— Morton Gold is a composer, retired educator and since 2007 an arts reviewer for the Journal Tribune.

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