Eckart Preu, the German-born music director of the Spokane Symphony in Washington for the last 14 years, is planning to leave that post, and although he also directs orchestras in Cincinnati and Long Beach, California, he hopes to fill the empty place on his dance card with the music directorship of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. One of the three candidates to succeed Robert Moody in that job, Preu (pronounced Proy) was on the podium at Merrill Auditorium on Sunday afternoon to lead the orchestra in works by Alexander Zemlinsky, Johannes Brahms and Johann Strauss Jr.

Preu’s choice of works was telling, and a bit daring, or at least, as daring as you can be without programming a challenging contemporary score. In a way, the Zemlinsky’s “Die Seejungfrau” (”The Mermaid”) – a big, three-movement symphony, completed in 1903 and running around 45 minutes – was the next best thing.

Though steeped in rich-hued Romanticism, this hefty score is not widely traveled, partly because it was lost until 1984, but also because it has only been in recent decades that conductors (most notably, James Conlon) have championed Zemlinsky at all.

To devote the first half of a concert, in what amounts to a job audition, to a work that few in the audience will know, is itself a message: It tells us that Preu is willing to take a chance on a piece from outside the standard canon that he believes in and that he is confident that he can persuade both the orchestra and the audience to share his enthusiasm.

It was a smart gamble. Caught up in the mania for tone poems at the turn of the 20th century, Zemlinsky found inspiration in the Hans Christian Andersen tale about a mermaid who falls in love with a prince and wants to become human, with an eternal soul. A sea witch tells her that she can have her wish if the prince marries her, but alas, he is already betrothed. Her failure, the witch has warned her, will mean her death, although it isn’t that simple: She dies, but through other machinations, she is given a soul.

In a fascinating pre-concert talk, Preu noted that the story may have had personal resonance for Zemlinsky, whose romance with Alma Schindler fell apart when she married Gustav Mahler in 1902, around the time he began writing the piece. In any case, Zemlinsky painted this story in expansive textures that capture the musical ferment of the moment, embracing both the Germanic use of leitmotifs (representing, among other things, the mermaid, the witch and the sea itself) and nascent French Impressionism (heard in the prismatic, swirling sea music).

Preu seemed thoroughly comfortable in this hybrid style, and so did the orchestra, which is often at its best in big, Romantic textures, particularly in works that also include richly detailed solo writing. Charles Dimmick, the concertmaster, contributed a sweetly turned account of the mermaid’s recurring theme, and there were superb contributions from the horns, trombones and individual winds, all within rich, transparent string textures. More crucially, Preu and the players conveyed a palpable sense of the mermaid’s emotional life, which ranges from wonder and rapture to heartbreak and serenity.

For the second half of the program, Preu turned his attention to more familiar fare. In Brahms’ Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello and Orchestra (Op. 102), his soloists were Joshua Roman, who gave a fine account of Mason Bates’ Cello Concerto here in 2016, and violinist Caroline Goulding, in her first Portland Symphony appearance. Both played magnificently, and they took care to match each other’s phrasing so that the solo lines often had the tautness of a chamber music performance within the work’s grander textures.

A touch of that chamber music quality found its way into the orchestral playing as well, particularly in the central Andante, and even if you prefer a more titanic approach to Brahms, it was an interesting reading, with an enlivening touch of folkish brightness in the finale.

Preu closed the concert – his third with the orchestra, after a guest visit in 2011, and a Gershwin pops concert last October – with a built-in encore, Strauss’ “An der Schönen Blauen Donau” (”On the Beautiful Blue Danube”). Where other conductors emphasize this waltz’s froth, Preu focused on the fluidity of its tempos. It was a solid performance, and an interesting experiment, but with Strauss waltzes, extra froth is probably the way to go.

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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