The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s programs, like those of most orchestras, tend to hop around eras and compositional styles, occasionally with elements that link the works, more typically without them. But the program the orchestra played on Tuesday evening at Merrill Auditorium, “The Schumann Circle,” brought together works by three 19th century German composers who were exceptionally close.

Two of them, Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck Schumann, were married. The third, Johannes Brahms, idolized Robert (who died in 1856, when Brahms was 23) and was in love, almost certainly platonically, with Clara for most of his life (they both lived into the late 1890s). And just as Brahms looked to Robert for advice in his early works, he continued sending his scores to Clara for decades, and took her comments to heart.

On Tuesday, Ruth Reinhardt, a German conductor who studied at the Juilliard School with Alan Gilbert (the director of the New York Philharmonic at the time) and spent two seasons as the assistant conductor at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, was on the podium. Reinhardt, who is also a violinist, an oboist and a composer, is an energetic presence whose cues are unequivocal, and who drew a rich, gleaming and generally powerful sound from the orchestra, which is precisely what the music at hand demands.

The curtain-raiser was Brahms’ “Tragic Overture” (Op. 81), a work Brahms completed in 1880 and revised the following year. It is a standalone piece; that is, it is not an overture for a particular stage work, and Brahms had no literary work in mind. He just wanted to write a piece that crystalized, in music, the emotions associated with tragedy.

That wasn’t heavy lifting for a German Romantic composer; tragedy was where they were most at home, a point Brahms demonstrated in the two chords that open the piece. Those two chords are so packed with menace and portentousness that you know immediately that something tragic has occurred; the details hardly matter.

Reinhardt got immediately to the heart of the piece by having the orchestra play those chords with a startlingly brutal sharpness and following through with a taut, tense reading. At first, it seemed slightly too taut – you wanted a hint of flexibility in dynamics or tempos, a breath between the tragic gestures that pile on top of each other. Eventually, Reinhardt lightened up slightly – enough to allow that needed elasticity.


Striking, too, was how well the orchestra was playing, not only here, but in Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”), which closed the program. In both works, the strings played with both drive and warmth, and the winds were consistently shapely and graceful. But the stars here were the brasses. Both scores lean heavily on trombone and French horn choirs, which were thrillingly solid and well-tuned.

The Schumann, of course, is a considerably more expansive and varied work, and it poses greater interpretive challenges. As in the Brahms, Reinhardt seemed intent on a high-pressure reading, an approach that worked well here, particularly in the opening movement, which is packed with grand gestures for a conductor (and her players) to revel in, and the finale, to which Reinhardt brought intensity and the kind of brisk, sharp articulation that conveys a sense of virtuosic precision.

That’s not to say that she bulldozed the symphony’s lighter moments. Her account of the Scherzo was remarkably fluid, and the third movement – the closest this symphony has to a slow movement (the marking is actually “Nicht Schnell,” or “not fast”) – was gracefully phrased.

Between the Brahms and Schumann, Diane Walsh joined the orchestra as the soloist in Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor (Op. 7). It’s a surprisingly mature work, given that she completed it at age 14, and it includes some fascinating innovations – most notably, a central movement for piano and cello alone.

It is a lively, sometimes playful work, with a sparkling piano part that offers a glimpse of the technique for which Clara was renowned. Walsh gave it a thoughtful performance, with enough energy to bring its considerable melodic riches and surprising harmonic turns fully to life. And Walsh and cellist William Rounds gave a beautiful account of the duet movement.

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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