The strong impression that Eckart Preu made as a candidate for the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s music directorship, and since his appointment was announced, has been based partly on his unusual repertory choices and his success in drawing vivid performances of these less familiar works.

You could argue, and some do, that new works and rarities are the way to go – that the standard canon, great as it is, overshadows equally worthy scores that go unheard when orchestras keep revisiting the (mostly) 18th and 19th century works that past generations have identified as the towering artistic statements of Western Civilization.

The fact is, as fashionable and useful as the thirst for adventurous programming may be, music directors cannot devote all their stage time to navigating less-traveled terrain. For their own development as interpreters, and as a way to test, build and shape their interactions with the players, the job involves regular forays into repertory for which there are established standards and traditions – and, not incidentally, that listeners know and love.

Preu’s mission at Merrill Auditorium on Sunday afternoon was to dive into the heart of that repertory. He presented two big, 19th century Viennese works – Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, with Stefan Jackiw as the soloist, and Schubert’s Symphony No. 9.

It’s not as though works as familiar as the Beethoven and Schubert are impervious to novelty. The reason they have survived this long (the Beethoven was composed in 1806, the Schubert in 1826) is that conductors regularly find something fresh in them – unusual tempo relationships, for example, or buried lines of counterpoint that turn out to be illuminating when given a higher profile. At the very least, a performance should persuade us that there are reasons these works have been so beloved for so long.

I can’t say that Preu’s performances offered new perspectives about these pieces, but they were unusual in one regard. Typically, both are played as monuments to 19th century grandeur, with their big gestures made especially brawny, and their gentler sections contrasting starkly. Yet Preu offered unusually relaxed readings, as if he were stripping the works of interpretive overstatement, and showing that even in the absence of larger-than-life drama, there is plenty to love in these scores.

That is not to say that there was no drama at all, only that it was on a more human scale. This was especially surprising in the Beethoven, a concerto that pits a virtuoso soloist against the orchestra, with lots of emotionally charged interplay between the soloist and the ensemble.

Jackiw is a powerful player with a superb command of color and ample energy, and based partly on my most recent encounter with his playing – an all-Ives recital with pianist Jeremy Denk, at Bowdoin College in 2015 – I expected a more daredevil approach. But Jackiw and Preu were entirely on the same page. Perhaps taking their cue from the gentleness and reserve of the work’s opening, both maintained its laid-back approach, even when the music offered an opportunity to ratchet up the tension.

For Jackiw, this meant focusing on the beauty and inventiveness of the solo line, while avoiding flashiness for its own sake. Instead, he kept Beethoven’s supple, sometimes bittersweet themes singing with a rich tone and a lovely sense of shape that complemented Preu’s approach to the orchestral writing.

Having taken that approach to the long first movement, it was not surprising that the central Larghetto was similarly restrained, again keeping the focus on the sheer beauty of the solo writing, and the nuance that Jackiw brought to it. It was not until the Larghetto gave way to the brisk finale that Preu and company abandoned the relatively genteel approach they had been taking, in favor of a robust, tightly focused performance.

As an encore, Jackiw gave a lovely, concentrated performance of the Largo from Bach’s Sonata in C (BWV 1005) for unaccompanied violin.

The Schubert followed similar contours – graceful, shapely readings of the first three movements, leading to a bright, fast, invitingly detailed performance of the finale. As in the Beethoven, the sheer ingenuity of Schubert’s themes held the spotlight, and there was some superb playing: The opening horn figure was perfect, as were contributions from individual winds, and you could not have expected greater warmth from the strings.

Before the Schubert, Preu took a moment to acknowledge four musicians who have played with the orchestra for more than 50 years – violists Ann Stepp and Elizabeth Miller, and bassists Lynn Hannings and George Rubino – as well as one audience member, Paul Vermel, who was the PSO’s music director from 1967 to 1975 and, at age 96, still attends the performances.

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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