In his brief comments from the podium before the Portland Symphony’s concert at Merrill Auditorium on Sunday afternoon, conductor Robert Moody advanced the peculiar notion that excerpts from three early Richard Strauss operas could be thought of as movements of a symphony, akin to the Beethoven Eighth, to which the first half of the program was devoted. He had come to see the pieces this way, he said, and he asked the audience to withhold its applause between the movements –the Act I Prelude from “Guntram,” the finale of “Feuersnot,” and both the “Dance of the Seven Veils” and the finale from “Salome” – even when the soprano soloist, Patricia Racette, took the stage to sing the final excerpt.

As an experiment in audience suggestibility, this was fairly clever. The listeners gamely forbore from applauding after the first two pieces. When Racette appeared, a small part of the audience was clearly torn between politeness and the desire to follow Moody’s instructions, and applauded lightly. They may also have been thrown by Moody’s tuning the orchestra after the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” something that doesn’t typically happen between movements in a symphony performance.

Or they may have concluded, by then, that the Strauss symphony concept didn’t work. In purely musical terms, it was a stretch. The distance between top drawer Strauss, like “Salome,” and minor Strauss, like “Guntram” and “Feuersnot,” is considerable. Even allowing that “Guntram” and “Feuersnot” are worth sampling now and then, seven years separate them, and it was another four years before Strauss completed “Salome.”

During those 11 years, Strauss’s style developed extraordinarily. Between the dull “Guntram” (1894) and the more assured (and provocative) “Feuersnot” (1901), Strauss wrote “Till Eulenspiegel,” “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” “Don Quixote” and “Ein Heldenleben.” In terms of orchestrational vividness, “Salome” is a leap beyond even those great tone poems, to say nothing of the earlier operas.

So in Moody’s proposed Strauss symphony, you have an attractive, delicate but shallow slow movement as an opener, another slow piece, also tuneful but somewhat more assertive, as the second movement, and then two vastly more vivid fragments as the closing movements. Structurally, it could be argued that the Dance of the Seven Veils” was a provocative update of the Minuet, typically a symphony’s third movement. And though symphonies don’t usually end with a big vocal movement with a soprano soloist, Strauss’s contemporary, Gustav Mahler, closed his Fourth Symphony that way. For that to work, though, the symphony as a whole must be as cohesive as the Mahler Fourth, and this faux-symphony is not.

That said, Moody and his players made as strong a case as can be made for “Guntram” and “Feuersnot,” individually. Both were couched in a lovely, lush string tone and firm ensemble playing throughout, and in “Feuersnot,” the orchestra’s brass and percussion produced a rich, solid sound. In the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” the players captured the score’s mild exoticism, but not the brutal wildness of its opening and closing sections. The musicians also gave Racette firm support in the finale, although again, the final pages – Salome’s death – required a barbarity that they did not quite muster.

Racette’s bright soprano, perfect for many of the roles she has sung, is not quite what you expect for “Salome,” unless you think of the character as a psychopathic soubrette. But Racette is a smart singer who knows how to shape a musical line so that it captures the underlying emotional intent, and her intelligent phrasing and directness was enough to make you question – for the moment, at least – whether Wagnerian heft really is required for the role.

Moody’s account of the Beethoven Eighth Symphony, the latest installment in his ongoing Beethoven cycle, was unimpeachable, and the orchestra’s playing was the best I’ve heard from it. Everything you want in this work – sharp accenting, ruggedness, focused wind and brass work and a full-bodied string sound – were all in place. Where Beethoven demanded a lilting line (in the second movement) or nimbleness (at the start of the finale), rather than hard-driven energy, the players supplied it amply, but the music’s energetic core was always close at hand. More than anything, this performance argued that the puzzling tepidness that has characterized some of this orchestra’s performances earlier this season is by no means an inherent quality.

The program will be repeated at Merrill Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.