In a performance delayed for a year, Pepe Romero plays with the Portland Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Sarah McCullough/courtesy of Portland Symphony Orchestra

An all-too-brief musical stopover in Spain led to an extended stay in Austria for the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s audience at Merrill Auditorium on Tuesday night.

The time in Spain was guided by renowned guest soloist Pepe Romero, who had to cancel an appearance here last season because of COVID. The 80-year-old classical guitarist joked that the extra year allowed him time to get better at what he does. Audience members had to laugh and wonder how that would even be possible as he gave a virtuoso performance of a work with which he has long been associated.

Likely the most well-known of classical guitar pieces with a Spanish tinge, Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” is a gem that, in the right hands, nearly perfectly balances individual expression from the soloist with grand flourishes from the orchestra. In the 1939 work, Rodrigo impeccably matched modern compositional structure with old world Spanish flair, epitomizing 20th century music’s search for roots in past cultural moments.

The seated Romero’s flamenco-inspired strumming and precise articulation of subtle linear themes were supported and enlarged upon by the downsized (for this piece) PSO under conductor Eckart Preu.

At about 30 lovely minutes, the Rodrigo piece seemed over way too soon. But Romero returned for a brief solo encore performing his father’s fanciful composition “Fantasia Cubana.” That work included some percussive tapping on the guitar as well as some high-on-the-fretboard filigree. Many more such encores would have been welcome. But the PSO had some heavy lifting yet to do in the second part of the program.
During a somewhat prolonged intermission, the orchestra swelled with additional players and instruments filling the broad Merrill stage. A fellow toting a big, shiny tuba particularly caught the eye.

Once the gathering together and tuning-up were complete, Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor” announced its presence by way of a memorable solo trumpet theme followed by considerable “bombast,” as Preu warned in a lighthearted introduction to this work by what he called a “troubled” composer from Austria.

He may have indeed been troubled. Leonard Bernstein believed Mahler’s music represented his prescient vision of the death and destruction to come later in the 20th century. The turmoil is suggested in the Fifth Symphony (though more so in his later compositions). But it is balanced by some beautiful, almost nostalgic returns to late Romanticism. If you don’t like that clatter, wait a minute and luxurious string passages will dance you away, as they did in this ravishing performance by the PSO.

Speaking of beauty, the famous “Adagietto” movement gently, poetically calmed the waters of the nearly exhausting but also totally fascinating 70-minute symphony. And in the end, the counterpoint of the “Rondo-Finale” brought home another exuberant celebration of the wonders of good music.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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