The Portland Symphony Orchestra receives a rousing response from the audience Sunday. Photo by Sarah McCullough

A stellar soloist and a visit to some irrefutably immortal music marked the first Portland Symphony Orchestra concert of the new year at Merrill Auditorium on Sunday afternoon.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s well-known Symphony No. 5 was performed by the PSO to cap off a two-hour program of tough-minded music that also reached toward brief moments of hard-won tranquility.

“Compositions of Resistance” was the title of the program which featured, in addition to the Beethoven masterpiece, a variety of compositions rooted in difficult times in troubled areas of the world.

Apropos of the times in which we live, two of the pieces came from composers from Ukraine. First up was the brief but stirring “Overture to Taras Bulba” by Mykola Lysenko (1842-1912). Forthright and broadly dramatic, the work incorporated folk themes in the manner of music from that region while emphasizing percussion and horns to counterbalance sweeping melodic passages full of deep sentiment. It was a grand opening showpiece that drew a rousing response from the large crowd.

The second Ukraine-based work, also brief, was “The Messenger” by Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937). Of more recent vintage than the piece by Lysenko, the work required some adjustment by the listener’s ears after what had preceded it.

Atmospheric and delicate, the Silvestrov at first seemed in danger of getting lost in the mists of its quiet reflection. But once established, it created almost chamber-like moments with a piano and reduced-in-size orchestra wafting it along.


The highlight of the first part of the program was “Never give up: Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra” by Turkish composer Fazil Say (b. 1970). Youthful Franco-Belgian cellist Camille Thomas, for whom the piece was composed, mounted a slightly raised platform and quickly managed to dazzle and amaze as only a uniquely engaged musician/performer can.

Though seated, Thomas struck balletic poses with her arms between intense passages. She provided facial expressions to match the intensity of her playing on this whirlwind piece.

Franco-Belgian cellist Camille Thomas performs with The Portland Symphony Orchestra.

The rhythms and harmonies relayed evocations of intense stress and strife. At one point, PSO percussionists mimicked gunfire on their instruments while Thomas deepened the urgency of the moment in a bravura performance. The much gentler, dance-like final movement brought the work closest to the composer’s regional heritage while asserting that hope was still an option.

After intermission, the full orchestra undertook the familiar but still challenging Fifth Symphony of Beethoven.

Having heard the work, or parts thereof, so many times, there can be a risk of treating the whole musical experience like a meal of good (albeit really good) comfort food for the ears. But the Fifth requires both precision and spirit, and the PSO presented a stirring performance that had conductor Eckart Preu jumping and stomping on the platform (and laughing a little when a young child cried out from the audience at the end of the first movement).

Preu earlier announced that Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony is on the PSO schedule for next season.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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