For the fastidious, it might have made sense for the Portland Symphony Orchestra to have ended its season with Robert Moody’s valedictory concerts, thereby drawing a neat line under his tenure before taking off for the summer. But whether by design or happenstance, the orchestra took a more interesting approach, scheduling one more classical program after Moody’s farewell. Instead of waiting until fall to begin the post-Moody era, it has moved decisively forward.

The main job at hand, of course, is selecting Moody’s successor. With one of the original four finalists having dropped out to take another post, three contenders remain, two of whom – Ken-David Masur and Eckart Preu – have already led the orchestra in both classical and pops programs. The third, Daniel Meyer, conducted a pops program last month and returned on Sunday afternoon to present his bona fides in the classical repertory, with an all-Russian program at Merrill Auditorium.

Naturally, when a potential music director is on the podium, every aspect of his presentation falls under greater scrutiny than it would if he were merely a guest, or a director in an ongoing term. That includes programming choices – a decision that must be agonizing for a conductor who has only one chance to make his case.

Meyer’s choice of three Russian works, composed between 1875 and 1940, was decidedly conservative, and for those of us curious about, for example, whether he can find and communicate the excitement in a contemporary score, or how he might differentiate between the languages and orchestration styles of composers from different countries, or eras, the program’s monolithic quality seemed disappointingly limited.

Yet it was easy to understand Meyer’s reasoning, and even to find something a bit daring in it. When you conduct audience favorites of long standing – in this case, a suite from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” the Glazunov Violin Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” – you are holding your reading up to comparison with past performances, including those enshrined on dozens of recordings. And whatever else might be said about the late-Romantic Russian repertory, its technical demands can be ferocious.

Meyer made a strong impression on both counts, and the orchestra’s solid, full-throttle response answered a third question: The chemistry between him and the players sounded promising. In the Tchaikovsky, a magnificent essay in tone painting, rhythms were sharply articulated, the impulses of the work’s choreography were captured vividly, and the interaction between sections – and solo players within them – was clear and bright. If there were instances where solo players rushed slightly, those were outweighed by solo contributions from all sections that were beyond reproach.


In the Glazunov Violin Concerto in A minor (Op. 82), Meyer proved a deferential accompanist, ceding the spotlight to Chee-Yun, a violinist with a rich, deep-hued tone and a good sense of how to make the showy solo line – including the lengthy cadenza, a fully packed survey of Romantic virtuoso moves – into poetry rather than mere display. But if Glazunov gave his most interesting material to the soloist, it’s not as if the orchestra is inconsequential, and Meyer kept its dialogues with the violin lively and on point. Chee-Yun (she goes by only her first name) offered an electrifying performance of Fritz Kreisler’s unaccompanied Recitative and Scherzo-Caprice (Op. 6) as an encore.

Daniel Meyer, music director of the Asheville Symphony and the Erie Philharmonic

Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” (Op. 45) closed the program and offered the clearest view of Meyer’s craft. Like the Tchaikovsky and Glazunov works, this is a score that draws on every aspect of an orchestra’s coloristic palette and makes sharp rhythmic demands as well; but unlike those works, its core is darker, more introspective. Meyer’s theory, offered in an interesting pre-concert talk, and also, in briefer form, during his introductory comments from the stage, is that the work, composed three years before Rachmaninoff’s death, is a kind of farewell, with fleeting quotations from several earlier works, and fragments of the Dies Irae – the Gregorian chant for the dead – heard at both the beginning and the end.

Meyer and the orchestra gave the piece the weight and gravity such an interpretation demands, but without overstating it, and certainly without downplaying the orchestral virtuosity it demands. As in the Tchaikovsky, Meyer shaped passages carefully, kept Rachmaninoff’s bursts of punctuating brass and wind writing sharp and precise, and drew remarkable warmth and flexibility from the strings and woodwinds. It was, overall, a thrilling account of a big, challenging work, and a perfect ending to an impressive job audition.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: kozinn

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