Concert review: Portland Symphony leader sneaks farewell message into program

01.31.18
Robert Moody
Portland Press Herald

Robert Moody has only a handful of concerts left in his tenure as music director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, and he is clearly feeling the time of separation coming closer: He mentions the number of concerts he has still to conduct - and that his finale will be Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony - pretty much any time he speaks publicly, and during his concert with the orchestra at Merrill Auditorium on Tuesday evening, he slipped an unannounced work with a farewell theme into the program.

The surprise addition was "Placido e il mar Andiamo," from Mozart's "Idomeneo," a piece in which the people of Crete join the princess Elettra on the shores of Sidon, from which they are about to set sail, and sing about the calm sea and gentle breezes.

Many writers, including the orchestra's program annotator, Mark Rohr, argue that Mozart's piano concertos are essentially operatic, with the piano as the full cast, spinning out lines that carry the emotional resonance of an opera's vocal lines, and the orchestra supporting and underscoring that interplay.It was a lovely gesture on Moody's part, but a slightly odd one, since it depended entirely on being heard out of context. In the opera's next scene, after all, a storm arrives, the sea becomes increasingly turbulent, and a giant sea monster arrives, making their departure impossible. Was there a message here?

Moody accompanied Elettra's opening recitative on the piano, with the orchestra taking over when the chorus (a vocal quartet, here) joined her. The excellent quartet singers were soprano Elisabeth Marshall, who also sang Elettra's music gracefully, alto Andrea Graichen, tenor Jesse Wakeman and bass Matthew LaBerge.

The "Idomeneo" excerpt was added just before another Mozart work, the Piano Concerto in D minor (K. 466), and for both, Moody pared down the orchestra to Classical-era proportions. The concerto soloist, Henry Kramer, has local roots - he grew up in Cape Elizabeth - but he was trained at Juilliard and Yale and is now based in Kansas City.

Kramer bore the work's drama in mind, particularly in the outer movements, but it seemed that his bigger priority was to honor the work's place in the purely instrumental realm, composed to show Mozart's considerable prowess as a pianist (albeit one with a dramatic sensibility). His clean, transparent articulation did nothing to diminish the music's inherent drama, but it did call attention to itself - not necessarily in a bad way, but it let you hear the work in terms of pianism first and quasi-operatic drama second.

If there was one miscalculation, it was the needlessly speedy tempo Kramer and Moody brought to the finale. That said, Kramer has the technique to play the movement at that speed without sacrificing anything in terms of precision or clarity.

As an encore, he gave a nicely focused performance of Brahms' Klavierstücke, Op.118, No. 5.

Before the Mozart segment, Moody led Hannah Lash's "Eating Flowers," a work composed for the Cabrillo Festival in 2015. Lash is no stranger to Portland: Her edgy "Pulse-Space" (2014) was performed at Space Gallery in 2016. "Eating Flowers" is pure energy and color, a display piece something like a compact, updated edition of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. Every section of the ensemble has its demanding moments in the spotlight, with special attention to the brass and pitched percussion.

The orchestra played the 10-minute score with the vividness it required. It was also at its best in Strauss's "Ein Heldenleben," the sprawling but eventful tone poem to which Moody devoted the program's second half.

 Read the rest of the review here