The PSO will repeat Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” on Tuesday, when Robert Moody will take his final bow after 10 years as conductor
in Portland. Photo courtesy
of Robert Moody

When a conductor steps down from a music directorship, listeners inevitably subject that maestro’s final programs to a good deal of tea-leaf reading. It makes sense. This is a big transition – not just leaving a job, but also drawing a line at the end of a creative partnership. And with centuries of great music to choose from, the piece or pieces that a conductor selects as a “last word” will seem freighted with meaning.

Robert Moody was clearly intent on presenting a mammoth work for the final concerts of his 10-year tenure with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, and one that had “the end” as at least a sub rosa message. During the sound check for his Maine Voices Live interview last Tuesday, he mentioned that he had considered the Verdi Requiem, but felt that its “Libera Me” (“Deliver Me”) finale might have people wondering whether he was saying something cryptic about the orchestra, or Portland.

Instead, he chose Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, a work that begins with a funeral rite and ends with a meditation on the eternal life that follows in the hereafter, from which the symphony takes its name, “Resurrection.” As a message, it clearly fit the bill, offering some of the grief of leave-taking that you find in a requiem, but ending with the hope, conveyed in a text from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn,” of rebirth – whether spiritual (for Mahler) or, in this case, artistic (for Moody and the orchestra) – after a parting of ways.

It is also the kind of challenging work that a conductor might want to be remembered for – a mammoth, intensely moving piece, scored for expanded orchestra, with added brass (some of it offstage), winds and percussion, a choir and two vocal soloists.

Moody conducted it here in 2010, without the extra freight of an impending departure. I did not hear that performance, but the valedictory account he led Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium was a spectacular summation of Moody’s accomplishments here, and not incidentally, of this orchestra’s best qualities.

From the opening pages, with their tremolando violins and violas supporting a forceful cello and double bass line punctuated with brief, descending staccato figures from the oboes, the work is both ominous and arresting, and full of an innate power that will grow, sometimes explosively, over the 85 minutes that follow.

Moody did not overstate the ferocity of this dark opening, but he didn’t underplay it, either: He adhered closely to Mahler’s detailed expression and dynamic markings, which can look fussy on the page, but which yield an irresistible suppleness – a sense of the orchestra as a breathing organism that embodies (rather than merely reproduces) the anxieties, terrors and, in the end, otherworldly ecstasies that Mahler labored to capture in this work.

That isn’t to suggest that the score plays itself. However detailed Mahler’s markings are, the organic effect he hoped for is also dependent on a conductor’s choice of tempos (and how the tempos of different sections relate to each other), balances, notions about the quality of tone necessary in a particular section, and even what Mahler’s dynamics actually mean – how loud a fortissimo is, and how quiet a pianissimo should be.

Moody’s choices here seemed consistently thoughtful and deeply felt, and the players in every part of the orchestra gave him a beautifully polished sound. The strings played with warmth and flexibility, and some exquisitely turned solo passages by concertmaster Charles Dimmick. The woodwinds captured that plangent character so typical – and necessary – in Mahler’s wind scoring, with exceptional contributions from principal oboist Andrew Price, principal flutist Lisa Hennessy and piccolo player Rachel Braude.

The brass playing – including that of the offstage horn and trumpet ensembles – was consistently solid and focused, and included remarkable solo work by principal trumpeter Joseph Foley. The percussionists, too, caught every bit of the thunder and delicate detailing Mahler demanded.

Elizabeth Bishop gave a gently turned, graceful account of “Urlicht” (“Primordial Light”), and Moody drew a beautifully balanced rendering of the finale, in which Bishop and soprano Twyla Robinson, who was also in fine voice, were joined by the superbly unified, silken tone of the ChoralArt Masterworks choir.

All told, this was the finest and most powerful performance I have heard from Moody and the orchestra, and although it may have been driven by a sense of the occasion, it offered a useful look at what these players can do. I hope they regard it not as a pinnacle, but as a baseline upon which they will build with Moody’s successor.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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