Robert Moody can to point to many accomplishments during his 10 years as music director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. Musically, the orchestra is a more confident and adventuresome ensemble. Its musicians are doing more outreach in the schools, and on the strength of Moody’s persona and charm, the orchestra has become more ingrained in the community, partnering with different arts organizations and reaching audiences in different ways.

He arrived when the orchestra was in financial peril and leaves when it is financially sound, with a string of balanced budgets and a clear vision of its mission.

But Moody is most proud of the inclusive and friendly tone that he has helped set, for the musicians and the community. In these days of division and rancor, inclusiveness and friendliness are characteristics that any organization should covet, he said.

“We finished our time together with great integrity. We finished our time together with a real dedicated mission to positiveness, and I wouldn’t want to set this to the side,” Moody said. “It’s becoming more and more important in the 21st century. The prima donna approach to music-making is something I have forever felt was detrimental and damaging to the world of live music. We don’t do that here. We are in a place where the orchestra has tremendous camaraderie and collegiality among the various stakeholders, and I am very proud of that.”

Moody will conduct his final concerts as music director on April 29 and May 1. On the night between those concerts, on April 30, the orchestra’s management team has planned “The Robert Moody Farewell Event” at Aura nightclub, a party that’s open to the public with a $50 ticket, and will include a variety show-style entertainment that celebrates his decade in Portland.

This Tuesday, Moody will be a guest on MaineVoices Live at One Longfellow Square, a one-on-one interview with music critic Allan Kozinn, who writes classical music reviews for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. The conversation begins at 7 p.m.


With Moody’s departure, Portland loses an affable, engaging maestro who talked about making the orchestra appealing and accessible to anyone from age 4 to 104, then found ways to make it happen without compromising artistic integrity, said the orchestra’s executive director, Carolyn Nishon. His tenure also was marked by a reduction in the number of classical music concerts the orchestra performs in a season, and Moody was the orchestra’s first music director in recent history who didn’t make his home in Maine.

Moody won people over with his personality and enthusiasm, then delighted them with the music he made, said subscriber Barbara Doughty of Portland.

She has attended PSO concerts since she and her husband moved to Maine from the Boston area in 2004. She liked the orchestra before Moody was hired as music director, and liked it a lot more afterward. “It just seems year by year, he has brought the orchestra along to where they are at such a high level of performance now, it’s thrilling,” she said. “I think it’s probably a combination of his expertise as a conductor and his way of being with people. He is so delightful. I know part of a conductor’s importance is that they connect not only with the musicians, but the audience. Robert is so likable – and attractive. I know I am going to be in tears when I see him perform for the last time. We were lucky to have him.”

Moody lives in North Carolina, where he conducted the Winston-Salem Orchestra throughout the time he conducted in Portland – and still does, though he is winding down his responsibilities there as he finishes up in Portland to focus his creative energies on his role as music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Moody began conducting in Memphis on an interim basis three years ago, and was named music director last year. When the Memphis orchestra hired Moody, its managers cited his history of helping orchestras increase revenue while controlling costs.

Moody championed new music, paid attention to female composers and featured soloists from the orchestra’s core group of musicians as well as high-profile celebrity guests. Among his accomplishment, he made it OK to say “y’all” and talk about college football from the stage at Merrill Auditorium.

For his farewell concerts, Moody will dedicate the program entirely to Gustav Mahler’s second symphony, known as the “Resurrection Symphony.” It’s a choral piece, and Moody invited ChoralArt Masterworks choral group to join the orchestra.


Robert Moody concludes his run as music director of the Portland Symphony on May 1.

He chose the Mahler symphony because it’s one of his favorite pieces of music and one the audience loved when Moody and the orchestra performed it in 2010.

“People are always trying to pigeonhole you into admitting what your favorite piece of music is,” he said. “If all things are equal, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 is perhaps more equal than others. I’ve never had a more deeply musical, spiritual or intellectual experience than with Mahler’s second, and I want to repeat it.”

It’s also a dramatic way to say goodbye. An Austrian, Mahler composed the music and wrote the libretto in the late 1880s and, with it, ponders what happens when our bodies turn to dust. It’s about reaching for higher spiritual ground.

The choice feels particularly symbolic and apt, as Moody leaves Portland to nestle into his own middle life, slowing down, settling in and making sense of the death of his father this spring, a passing that he called “a real blow.”

Moody turns 51 on May 2, just hours after he finishes conducting his farewell, and now that he is in his 50s, Moody plans to concentrate on his job as music director in Memphis, dropping dual music directorships in different cities for a more balanced life. Losing his father in the year he turned 50 made for deep reflection about how he wants to spend his time. “I am much more focused on having experiences that are satisfying as opposed to experiences that are impressive. That’s where my brain is,” he said.

The orchestra is searching for Moody’s replacement and may name a new music director as soon as this spring or summer, Nishon said. One of the finalists, Daniel Meyer, conducts a pops concert Sunday.



Moody came to Portland for the first time in January 2005 as a guest conductor and candidate to replace Toshiyuki Shimada, who had been music director since 1986. When he got in the cab at the airport, the driver asked why he was in town. Moody told him he was auditioning to become the next conductor of the PSO. The driver perked up, telling Moody he took his family to the “Magic of Christmas” every year.

Moody was impressed. “I thought, ‘Wow, the cabdriver knows about the PSO. That’s a good sign.’ ”

But it wasn’t all positive. As Moody worked his way through the audition process and was named music director designate in spring 2007, the orchestra’s financial picture darkened. The national recession coincided with a drop in gifts, grants and sponsorships, and the value of the orchestra’s endowment. A string of budget deficits that had hamstrung the orchestra finally caught up with the PSO.

During the year he spent as music director-designate – the time between being named music director and when he actually began his duties – Moody spent much of it asking for money. He and then-board president Gordan Gayer visited more living rooms “than I could possibly count,” Moody said, pitching the orchestra, asking for trust and making the case that “we were off of life support but not out of the hospital. ‘If we ever needed you to invest in the stewardship of this new leadership, we need you now.’ I made so many versions of that speech so many times.”

The orchestra cut concerts, trimmed salaries and eliminated jobs, but a concentrated and intense internal review, which included community input, helped stabilize and refocus the orchestra on its core mission of enriching lives through music. Moody helped craft that new, simple mission statement and embodied it throughout his 10 years in Portland, Nishon said. “Robert defined the mission and remained loyal to it,” she said.


Nishon began working with the orchestra in the 2008-09 concert season, Moody’s first as music director. Her first job was artistic administrator and orchestra manager. She moved up to executive director in 2015. Moody has worked with three executive directors in Portland: Ari Solotoff, Lisa Dixon French and Nishon.

That first difficult year strengthened the character and core of the organization, when the orchestra’s management team faced hard decisions about its future, and Moody was central to the process, Nishon said. He set the tone in all the public discussions as well as the internal ones, showing leadership that included a clear vision and charisma that made people want to get on board.

“This orchestra absolutely rose to the occasion,” Nishon said. “When faced with survive or not – and then not just survive, but how do we thrive – we thrived, and we continued asking, ‘How do we thrive more?’ The purpose of this orchestra is not to balance the budget. The purpose is to create musical moments that are enriching to the community.”

But the PSO has operated in the black for nine consecutive seasons, Nishon said, with an operating budget this season of $3.3 million. The budget was $2.8 million in Moody’s first year, and budget deficits were routine, totaling nearly $2 million from 1999 until Moody’s first season.

Counting only events in the orchestra’s longtime home at 1,900-seat Merrill Auditorium, about 60,000 people attend ticketed PSO events in any given year, including classical, pops, holiday, family and concerts for kids, Nishon said. Attendance has grown over his tenure and the orchestra attracts a wider range of age groups to the hall, she said.

Artistically, the orchestra also is firing, said horn player Nina Miller, who lives in Portland and has played with the orchestra for 41 years. As a performance group, the orchestra is more cohesive and intuitive than before Moody arrived, she said.


“We’ve filled many openings during Robert’s tenure with first-class musicians through a rigorous and very competitive audition process,” she said. “Musically speaking, we are a better ensemble than we were 10 years ago, through growth and hard work, and Robert’s leadership.”

He is comfortable with all kinds of music, and brings people to concerts who might never have set foot in Merrill Auditorium, she said. “He is a wonderful teacher, approachable, down-to-earth and of good humor.”

Moody compared his relationship to the musicians to that of a dating couple. New couples tell all their stories right away. After they’ve been together and are comfortable with each other, they talk less but communicate more effectively. That’s where Moody and the orchestra are now, he said. “Less words are necessary to create great art between us. I talk a lot less in rehearsals now than I did back then. There’s no need to explain who I am and what I am thinking. They get it.”

Nishon believes Moody’s legacy will be his ability to bring people in to the orchestral experience. Classical music presenters have tried many ways to pull down barriers that keep people from attending classical music concerts. In Portland, Moody tried to bring people in with a combination of outreach and embrace. The orchestra created concert series for families and kids and programmed pop concerts that appealed to rock fans. None of that is new. Orchestras have tried such strategies for decades.

Moody succeeded, Nishon said, because people like him and trust him, and that includes serious music fans who judge him less on his smile and demeanor and more on his musical chops. He’s introduced new music and new composers to Portland audiences, brought in guest artists, like soprano Renee Fleming, who raised the profile and credibility of the orchestra and its musicians, and paid attention to the classical music canon, elevating composers like Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler and putting their music in context with their peers and predecessors, as well as their contemporary counterparts.

“He has opened up the doors in such a welcoming way to Merrill Auditorium, and is able to tap into what music means to each person. I think there is a real truth in that. Whether you are a scholar of Mahler or hearing it for the first time, there is meaning in your experience,” Nishon said. “Robert recognized that and treated those experiences equally.”


Among the composers Moody introduced to Portland is Mason Bates, a West Coast composer whose career Moody has boosted for many years. Moody included three pieces by Bates on PSO programs. For one of those, Bates came to Portland and performed an electronic part with the orchestra. Later that night, Bates DJ’d at a local club.

Moody’s genius, Bates said, is his ability to program adventurous and challenging music while relating to everyone in the room. “So many conductors can do one kind of thing, whether it be programming new music, highlighting the war horses and classics or doing the pop standards. Bob can do everything,” said Bates, who spoke by phone from him home in San Francisco. “And he’s got this incredible, all-American, relatable personality.”


As Nishon reflects on Moody’s decade in Portland, she focuses on specific moments. Fleming’s appearance in 2009 is one of her favorites. A superstar soprano, Fleming was fun to work with and gave a memorable performance, and her appearance came at a time when the orchestra was in the midst of its financial crisis. Moody’s decision to bring her to town was brilliant because it reinforced to the musicians and the audience that the orchestra was capable of greatness, and it reminded people what would be lost if the orchestra failed. “It meant so much to have someone of that caliber performing along with us,” Nishon said.

Another moment came during the orchestra’s 90th season in 2015, when Moody invited back to the Merrill stage all of the orchestra’s living past conductors, including Shimada, Paul Vermel and Bruce Hangen. That concert reinforced the legacy of the organization.

But the moment that Nishon may cherish the most occurred in fall 2011, when the orchestra hosted the U.S. Naval Academy Glee Club for a weekend of pops concerts. Nishon reconnected with her memories of that weekend when she learned of the death of former first lady Barbara Bush, who attended the concert with her husband, former President George H.W. Bush.


“I was sitting in the audience during the armed forces salute, when each arm of military stands when their tune comes on. H.W. was in a wheelchair sitting next to me, and when it was his turn to stand, he pushed himself up out of the wheelchair and stood. To be sitting next to a past president who struggled to stand in response to your community’s orchestra was a thrilling moment,” she said.

The moment made her proud – and grateful that Moody made it happen. His instincts as a programmer were always just right, she said, and he always set the proper tone.

Moody will say his farewell from the stage at Merrill next week. He will choose his words carefully.

“Everyone knows that I like to talk from the stage, and I won’t let the final concert be different,” he said. “In a nutshell, it will be words of thanks. More than anything, it will simply be words of gratitude and words of encouragement to everyone – the players, the board, the staff, the audience. Roll up your sleeves and get involved in the next chapter. It will absolutely be different, because the next music director is not me. Jump in with both feet and milk the next experience for all it’s worth.”

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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