When the Portland Symphony Orchestra announced what was originally a slate of four candidates for its music directorship, Alexander Mickelthwate was to have conducted the ensemble at Merrill Auditorium on Tuesday evening. When he dropped out to take another position, just as the season was getting underway, another candidate, Ken-David Masur, took over his date, giving him a second chance to be heard with the orchestra.

At the time I thought that was a fine idea, having heard Masur conduct elsewhere to fine effect, although I also wondered whether it was entirely fair: If Masur is heard twice on the orchestra’s classical series, the others should have a second hearing too. As it turned out, I found Masur’s first concert with the orchestra, in November, a mixed success, so I was pleased that he would have an opportunity to make a stronger impression.

I wish I could say he did, but Tuesday’s concert was disappointingly inconsistent. As was the case with the earlier concert, I don’t believe the performance’s deficits can all be laid at Masur’s door, although some can.

He got off to a strong start, with Mozart’s Overture to “La Clemenza di Tito.” Recent fashions in the performance of 18th-century music demand a reduced ensemble, a notion that Robert Moody, the orchestra’s outgoing music director, generally honors. Masur retained a hefty string complement, which is his prerogative, and while a large orchestra for Mozart is generally not my preference, it seemed admirable that Masur was willing to buck the trend, if he feels strongly about it and can get good results.

You could not argue with the results. The string playing was taut and dramatic, the brasses were solid, and the reading, overall, was energetic, precise and uplifting. Nor could you fault Masur’s impulses, and the orchestra’s response, in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, Op. 73, the “Emperor,” although Masur was interpretively at odds with his soloist, Natasha Paremski.

To give Masur the benefit of the doubt here, Paremski and the “Emperor” were holdovers (the only ones) from Mickelthwate’s program, and not necessarily a combination he’d have chosen if he were building the orchestra’s seasons himself. And Paremski, a young, Russian-born player who has spent much of her life in New York, had some unusual ideas about the concerto.


Most notably, she played at times with an odd choppiness that made it seem as though she were intent on not overusing the piano’s sustain pedal. You could probably make a case for that, in terms of the pianos of Beethoven’s day. But that doesn’t take the unforgivingly dry sound of Merrill Auditorium’s house piano into account.

In high-lying, light-textured passages, Paremski’s playing was attractively lithe; in heavier passages, although she summoned the requisite power, her sound was more pedestrian, even a bit muddy at times.

There were balance issues, as well. And at one point, midway through the opening movement, when the piano has an accompanying figure and the orchestra has the theme, Paremski was puzzlingly out front, much louder than she ought to have been – something Masur should have countered immediately.

Masur devoted the second half of the program to Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6 in D major (Op. 60), a work that shows both the composer’s influences, in its frequent hat tips to Beethoven, Brahms and Czech folk styles, as well as some of the personal voice that would emerge more clearly in his later symphonies.

The performance began promisingly, with lovely woodwind playing and a rich string sound in the opening bars. The strings’ tone and fleetness held up in the brisk Scherzo and in the finale; other sections were less consistent: An admirable solo horn line in the second movement gave way, just a moment later (and again in the finale) to dicey intonation from the section as a whole.

Still, a performance of a big Romantic symphony stands or falls on the conductor’s conception, and Masur’s was not sharply focused. In the opening movement, he took a relaxed tempo that had just the right undercurrent of tension, but by the movement’s end, and throughout much of the rest of the symphony, his reading grew distant and diffuse, sometimes even plodding, as if he had either lost interest in the work, or just hasn’t yet found the key to showing its strengths.

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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