This may be an unsettled season for the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

Having bid farewell, last spring, to its music director of the last decade and having chosen a new one who won’t begin in earnest until next season, the orchestra is beginning a season of guest conductors, with its music director-designate, Eckard Preu, leading only one program, at the end of January.

Elsewhere, a season dominated by guests is business as usual: In a concert season that runs from September through June, a music director typically conducts no more than 15 weeks of concerts, with guests on the podium the rest of the time. That’s not a bad thing; a parade of distinct musical personalities gives the audience and the players a variety of interpretive viewpoints, but the music director is on site frequently enough to mold his ensemble’s sound and style.

Circumstances are different in Portland. The orchestra is not a full-time ensemble, but a group of high-quality freelancers, although with substitutes sometimes filling in for its excellent principal players – as was the case Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium, when the orchestra opened its season without its concertmaster, Charles Dimmick.

It also plays a minimal schedule, only eight classical programs (two months’ work for a full-time orchestra), most usually led by its music director, whose preferences the players internalize, once he’s been there for a while.

So, if the orchestra sounded diffuse during parts of its concert Sunday, the potential explanations are plentiful. Not among them, though, was the orchestra’s guest on the podium, Jeffrey Kahane, a solid, experienced musician whose interpretive ideas seemed sensible and were projected in gestures grand enough that even the most distant player on the stage could not have missed them.

In Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 (the “Prague,” K.504), which opened the program (after a rendering of the national anthem, heavy on cymbal crashes), Kahane sought a balance between the sparseness of a period instrument rendering and the lushness of a Romanticized reconsideration.

Jeffrey Kahane Photo courtesy of Portland Symphony Orchestra

That meant that the orchestra’s size was reduced, but still hefty by Mozart-era standards, and that the portentousness of the work’s opening chords, as well as the dramatic percussion punctuation throughout the first movement, were offset by sweetly turned string lines. A speedy, sharply accented finale was energizing as well. Yet between those movements, the orchestra delivered a turgid, virtually inert account of the andante, creating a question mark that hung over the entire enterprise.

The rest of the first half was devoted to Lowell Liebermann’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (Op. 39), a work that Liebermann composed for James Galway in 1992. It has everything you expect in a score written with Galway in mind – long, graceful melodies, mainly, but also fleet figures and lines shaped specifically to allow a flutist to show how varied and changeable the flute’s timbre can be.

Lisa Hennessy, the orchestra’s principal flutist, was the soloist and gave Liebermann’s score a thoughtful, technically secure and deeply felt reading, with the orchestra moving supportively through textures that morphed gradually, over the course of the work, from cinematic Romanticism to Stravinskyan rhythmic vitality.

A lovely Tchaikovsky “Elegie,” wrested from its natural place as the third movement of the “Serenade for Strings (Op. 48), opened the second half and showed the orchestra’s strings to superb effect. Everything was right here: Kahane’s pacing highlighted the luxuriousness not only of Tchaikovsky’s writing, but of massed strings, as well, unmediated by winds, brass or percussion. And the musicians gave the movement their best performance of the afternoon.

Tchaikovsky’s “Francesca da Rimini” (Op. 32), on the other hand, began solidly, with all the tension and drama necessary to evoke the vision of hell that overshadows the underlying tale. That story, in which Francesca falls in love with the younger brother of her betrothed, who catches and murders them, makes up the central section of the work, with the finale returning to their torments in the afterlife.

But the passionate section of the score sounded distant and tepid and not entirely unified Sunday, despite brief episodes of excellent solo wind playing. And the closing section, rather than conveying the terrors of the lovers’ punishment, sounded disappointingly shapeless and clattery.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: kozinn

filed under: