by Emily Parkhurst
Portland, ME, 5 May, 2009. This evening’s performance was one of the best I’ve heard from the Portland Symphony Orchestra in some time. While the program was about as mainstream as they come, (following the tried and true overture-concerto-symphony structure) the energy of the orchestra, soloist, and conductor was palpable.
Beginning with Carl Maria von Weber’s lively Jubel-Overture, Op. 59 was a light way to start off the evening. Weber wrote a cantata in 1818 to celebrate King Friedrich August of Saxony’s ascension to the throne, but for political reasons the work was never performed. Thus, Weber wrote the Overture to take the place of the unused cantata. The work includes the opening melody of the ubiquitous song “God save the King/Queen,” or, as we call it in America, “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” The song is, of course, Britain’s national anthem, which Samuel Francis Smith borrowed in 1831 when he wrote the new lyrics for an American version. It was also Germany’s national anthem until 1922. The melody has been used by composers from J.C. Bach, to Beethoven, to Charles Ives, and has been around for so many years it is difficult to trace. Regardless of its origins, this plucky, familiar tune did its job, preparing the audience for a warm, cozy performance.
Next up was cellist Zuill Bailey with a stunningly emotional rendition of Edward Elgar’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in e, Op. 85. Conductor Robert Moody introduced the piece, describing it “like friends sitting around a fire,” which, on this rainy evening, was a welcome image.
The 1st movement opens with solo cello, an unusual but immediately arresting way to begin. Bailey’s long, wild hair flew about with almost equal passion as his bow, drawing the orchestra into what was clearly his performance. This movement conjured images for me of sea shanties being sung by men rigging sails on the open ocean. There is a freedom to these hummable melodies that seems so outside the historical time in which they were written. Elgar wrote this in 1918 in the midst of WW I. The classical elite brushed off the work at the time for the more popular avant-garde and neoclassicists, leaving Elgar to write these gorgeous melodies unappreciated. Luckily for us, he was not forgotten. His music saw a resurgence in the mid to late 20th century and his gift for melody is certain to remain popular in the 21st as well.
The opening of the 2nd movement was definitely a fireside moment as Moody described, but the calm did not last for long, as if this group of casual friends suddenly brought up politics and all peacefulness was forgotten. As the mood changed and the melodies developed, Bailey strummed and plucked his strings with such fervor I worried they might snap. The transitions between orchestra and soloist were masterful and fluid, like a finely choreographed dance. The audience was transfixed.
Bailey is the kind of performer one must absolutely see live. He is a cello rock star if there ever was one. I suspect that on his days off he plugs in a Stratocaster in his basement and wails through Led Zeppelin tunes with the same passion he put into the Prelude of Bach’s 1st cello Suite in G, S. 1007, that was his encore.
Ah, then there was the Brahms. As is so often documented, Brahms was terrified to write this piece, his 1st symphony, in the footsteps of his famous predecessor, Beethoven. While it is easy to see why Brahms was so overwhelmed by the masterful composer’s symphonic shadow, his 1st symphony made it clear he was a composer of equal substance. The 4 Brahms symphonies are some of the best works in the repertoire, labors of love and hate, terror and fervor, complexity and incredible depth, by a composer with what was quite possibly the most unnecessary inferiority complex in the history of classical music.
Brahms’ symphonies are as much for the musicians as they are for the audience. The PSO seemed to delight in that, reveling in the opportunity to devour this masterwork. A tad overzealous at times, they were not to be sated until that last, final chord.
This is Music Director Robert Moody’s 1st official year with the PSO, and he has clearly earned the respect of musicians and audience alike. He is the Fred Astaire of conductors, internalizing the music and expressing it with every muscle in his body. The orchestra responds with equal passion. I am certain that, in spite of the quality of this performance, the best is yet to come.