Robert Moody opens Portland Symphony Orchestra season with musical fireworks

Robert Moody
Portland Press Herald

Now in his eighth season as music director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra and having announced that he would leave the orchestra after his 10th, Robert Moody opened the orchestra’s 91st season as a celebratory fanfare, with an emphasis on fireworks and grandeur. That seemed a reasonable approach. Programs that lean more decisively toward subtlety will follow later in the season, and in any case, it was not as if Moody presented nothing but potboilers on Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium.

Much of the celebration, after all, flowed from Berlioz’s majestic Te Deum, a work in which brilliant effects and deeply moving settings of the liturgical text are intertwined, with much demanded of the orchestra, multiple choirs, and tenor and organ soloists, to say nothing of the conductor charged with holding it all together. And because the work’s logistical demands and sheer heft keep it from being performed very often, it gave Moody legitimate bragging rights for presenting a rarity. 

Moody opened the first half of the program, after a sturdy rendering of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” with Dvorák’s “Carnival” Overture, an explosion of cheerful energy. Dvorák composed this showpiece as the central panel of a trilogy meant to explore the forces of nature, life and love, and it remains the most popular of the three (the others, “In Nature’s Realm” and “Othello”) no doubt because the fast, loud flourishes and cymbal crashes of its opening and closing sections make it a fun listen.

It also offers a conductor a quick and easy way to show off an orchestra’s sound under extreme conditions. Moody, who told the audience that this overture was the first piece he ever conducted in public, during his college years, clearly knows its pitfalls, and he saw to it that his strings produced a big, robust sound that remained warm and rounded even in passages that can easily turn shrill. 

That was a complaint that could not be leveled against Moody’s performance of Berlioz’s titanic score, which was carefully contoured to allow the text to be heard clearly despite the density of the scoring, and which honored Berlioz’s intention that the piece be more dramatic than purely devotional.

Moody’s performing forces were a fraction of the more than 900 singers and players available to Berlioz at the work’s 1855 premiere, but he fielded at least 300 musicians, including the Boston Children’s Chorus, the Masterworks Chorus of the Choral Art Society, and members of the Vox Nova Chamber Choir, as well as the orchestra, organist Ray Cornils, and René Barbera, the tenor soloist. These combined forces produced an enormous, rich sound, beautifully blended and balanced. 

Read the rest of the review here