Guest conductor Tito Muñoz leads the Portland Symphony Orchestra in performance of “Symphonic Seasons.” Photo courtesy of Portland Symphony Orchestra

The chill of autumn was in the air outside Merrill Auditorium. But a sizable Sunday afternoon crowd inside got to sample some warming “Symphonic Seasons” thanks to the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

Under the direction of guest conductor Tito Muñoz, the PSO presented three works that suggested alternate climes and times. The first two highlighted the intersection of folk and formal traditions, the last was more reliant on the latter alone to connect the dots between art and the recurring patterns of life.

First up was “Mariachitlán,” a recent work by Juan Pablo Contreras, a young composer who sought to create a piece that would evoke his own formative experiences hearing varieties of Mariachi music played outdoors in a town square in his home of Guadalajara, Mexico.

The familiar sounds of trumpets and percussion were drawn through a soundscape that matched quick variations of volume and tempo with techniques that could make adjectives like raw and harsh coexist with rich and playful in the span of a few moments. Whistles and a bit of vocalizing by PSO members added to the fun in the sunny escapism suggested by this piece.

Next in the program came “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,” a collection of four works by noted Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla that were arranged into a single four-movement piece, with a nod to Vivaldi’s famous “Four Seasons,” by Ukrainian composer Leonid Desyatnikov.

With its blend of the suggestive mysteries of a classic dance form with the twists and turns of more contemporary sounds, Piazzolla’s “new tango” was all the rage a few decades ago. The performance of this piece on Sunday brought back to mind a lot of what elevated the composer’s reputation with those seeking to be moved by moods both earthy and elevated.


Violin and cello solos added moody and melancholy colors to an overall cosmopolitan feeling that demanded the determination of the soloists and ensemble to keep up.

Violinist Giora Schmidt joined the PSO in this reading of Piazzolla’s music and animatedly placed the emphasis on a full-on engagement with the sometimes gentle and sometimes bracing elements of a year in Argentina’s capital.

After intermission, the audience was welcomed into the world of 19th century European symphonic music-making on a grand scale. Muñoz (who at times seemed to be assertively swinging and punching at the air above the players) and the PSO vigorously leaned into a performance of Robert Schumann’s first symphony, a work, according to the composer, inspired by poetry about the season of spring.

Mixing Romantic power dynamics with the precision of a classical tradition still echoing in the young composer’s mind, the work exuded confidence and resolution within a formal framework that, nonetheless, gave Schumann plenty of space to dream. Notable were the passages for flute and trombone. The force of the tympani was felt throughout.

While the popular bent of the first half of the program both absorbed and entertained, it was this last piece that summoned a spring-like surge of energy from the PSO.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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