When conductors assemble their programs, they often rely on a handful of time-tested templates. For the last few decades, the most popular of these was a template built on the notion that programming should be thematic, and you can understand why: Being able to trace connections between works, and the ideas they embody, through decades or even centuries, gives a program an extra-musical coherence, and can seem especially thoughtful.

Judging by his programs this season and next, Eckart Preu seems less interested in finding unifying themes than in presenting the greatest variety possible in a two-hour concert, but his programs have been useful reminders that this can be an equally satisfying approach, when it’s done well.

Yet it is also a characteristic of the human mind to seek connections whenever possible, even if they require a stretch. When Preu conducted the Portland Symphony Orchestra at Merrill Auditorium on Sunday, he presented three works that could not be more diverse: the world premiere of Robin Holcomb’s “No Thing Lives to Itself,” the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor (Op. 22), and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 (“Little Russian,” Op. 17). No connections, right?

Not so fast. Holcomb’s work is inspired by Rachel Carson, whose books – most notably, “Silent Spring” (1953) – warned that our polluting ways were destined to destroy Earth’s ecology. And the nickname of Tchaikovsky’s symphony, “Little Russian,” refers to a 19th-century Russian nickname for Ukraine. With climate change and Ukraine both in the news, we suddenly have the makings of a program focused, at least obliquely, on current issues. (I haven’t yet found a role for the Saint-Saëns.)

Holcomb’s piece, commissioned for the PSO by the League of American Orchestras, as part of its Women Composers Readings and Commissions program (underwritten by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation), draws its title from a phrase Carson used frequently to indicate that everything on the planet has an effect on, and is affected by, everything else.

Holcomb did not take the easiest route toward capturing this idea in music. That would have been a theme-and-variations set, with musical evocations of nature, like the bird songs and thunderstorm in Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. Instead, she has written a 13-minute work so episodic as to seem diffuse at times, with lovely neo-Romantic scoring and sweeping, lyrical themes giving way to more modernist touches (particularly in her use of percussion). Exactly how these episodes influence each other was difficult to fully grasp on a single listening, also some of the juxtapositions – a symmetrical string passage interrupted by mechanistic percussion, which in turn is enveloped in the full orchestra texture – seemed clear enough.


Saint-Saëns is a composer whose capacity for producing entertaining works – and his Piano Concerto No. 2 is one – has overshadowed the skill and fluidity he brought to the task. Preu has programmed a more regal example of his work next season, the Symphony No. 3, which has a prominent organ part that should sound magnificent on Merrill’s Kotzschmar organ. But there is plenty to admire in his concertos, and Ran Dank sounded ideally suited to his music on Sunday.

Dank’s playing was fleet and trim, not only in the Presto finale, where those qualities also embrace an appealing athleticism, but also in the alternately delicate and extroverted passages that animate the first two movements. The piano is often heard unaccompanied in this piece, but there is plenty of beautifully nuanced orchestral writing as well, and here, Preu’s shaping and the fine contributions of the principal winds proved as enlivening as Dank’s nimble pianism.

Preu devoted the second half to a superbly balanced, solidly played performance of the Tchaikovsky symphony, with excellent solo work by principal hornist Lauren Winter in the first movement. Both in his pre-concert talk and his introduction to the work from the stage, he duly noted that the first, second and fourth movements drew on Ukrainian folk themes. He could do us a favor, though – a performance of the folk themes on their own would clarify Tchaikovsky’s sources for listeners unfamiliar with them.

There were times when one could quibble with Preu’s tempos. The finale, while suitably brisk, gave the music a breathless quality that impinged slightly on the shapeliness of Tchaikovsky’s themes, and the second movement, Andantino marziale, struck me as slightly slow, for a military march. But in that case, Preu’s tempo had the benefit of clarifying Tchaikovsky’s textural details. Agree with his choices or not, you invariably get the impression that Preu has considered them carefully.

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

Twitter: kozinn

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