When Eckart Preu last conducted the Portland Symphony Orchestra, nearly a year ago, as a candidate for its music directorship, he played a risky hand by making Alexander Zemlinsky’s grandly-scaled but rarely performed “The Mermaid” the centerpiece of his program. The gamble paid off: Preu drew a superb performance from the orchestra and won over the audience, so although the competition was tough, Preu’s adventurous programming choice – and the faith it showed in the orchestra’s musicians – helped him win the post.

He returned to Merrill Auditorium on Sunday afternoon to take a victory lap, now as music director designate; when he appears next, in September, the “designate” will be dropped. It was a chance for listeners who missed his audition concert to catch up, and for those of us who heard it to see whether our strong first impressions held up.

The good news: That first impression was not a fluke. With three lavishly orchestrated works – Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” Overture Fantasy, the world premiere of “The Telling Room” by the Hawaiian composer Michael-Thomas Foumai, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” – Preu led finely nuanced, thoughtfully paced interpretations, and drew from his players the kind of focus and energy that this orchestra can produce when it’s at its best. Coming midway through a season of performances that for the most part have been puzzlingly listless, it was heartening to see that the Preu-PSO chemistry works so well.

The drawing card this time was the Rimsky-Korsakov, a work from the heart of the canon – but one that demanded many of the same interpretive skills as last year’s Zemlinsky performance. Both, after all, are narrative pieces that use the non-verbal language of music – with rhythm, harmony, melody and orchestral color all pressed into service – to tell a specific, detailed and emotionally weighty story.

“Scheherazade,” actually, paints the details of several “Arabian Nights” tales, within the larger story of Scheherazade’s bid to stay alive by keeping her husband, the Sultan Schahriar, so fascinated with her nightly cliffhangers that he sets aside his habit of beheading his wives after their wedding night. The sultan and Scheherazade herself are represented by themes within the work, which change as the tales progress, as if Scheherazade is portraying the sultan and herself as the protagonists or participants in some of the stories. The tales themselves are built on vivid effects – particularly the concluding episode, “The Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock.”

Preu took some unusual tempos at times, but they never seemed wrong, within the larger context. Often, it was a matter of lingering over details that typically sweep past, and in almost every case, his decision to do so magnified significant details.

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There were a couple of ensemble slips that, if they weren’t in particularly exposed spots (tentative attacks on the work’s very first and last wind chords) might have gone unnoticed. But more broadly, the orchestra seemed to revel in both the sound Rimsky-Korsakov demanded, and the shapeliness that Preu brought to it.

Charles Dimmick, the concertmaster, contributed significantly, bringing a rich, sweet tone and a powerful emotional underpinning to the solo violin passages that represent Scheherazade. There were also briefer solo turns for oboe, trombone, trumpet, flute, English horn, French horn and clarinet, all executed with finesse.

Preu opened the concert with a passionate rendering of Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which benefited from a lush string tone and finely unified wind and brass choirs, as well as a healthy measure of dynamic flexibility.

Between those Russian classics, Preu led the premiere of Foumai’s “The Telling Rooms,” a work commissioned by the orchestra. Foumai was inspired by the work of three young Maine poets – Aubrey Duplissie, Husna Quinn and Eliza Rudalevige – who were among the winners of the Telling Room’s annual statewide poetry competition.

Foumai’s work is purely orchestral; the poems, which are about color, are not heard as such, although they are printed in the program book. But the piece – a series of three fantasies, in effect – reflects the impressions the poetry left on Foumai, whose style is conservatively neo-Romantic and tuneful, with both dark (lightly dissonant) and playful episodes.

Foumai is a deft orchestrator, who likes to keep his colors and textures changing constantly, even when repeating riffs run through them. There was nothing technically or conceptually challenging in the music, and sometimes the rhythms of his themes were relentlessly squarish. But new works don’t always have to be revolutionary. This one was appealingly varied, with an enjoyably sparkling finale.

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


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