The Portland Symphony Orchestra’s program looked great, on paper. Bruce Hangen, the music director from 1976 to 1986 and a busy conductor around the country since then, was returning to lead the PSO as a guest, and the superb cellist Matt Haimovitz was the soloist.

The program was promising: Bloch’s “Schelomo,” the program’s first half, would put Haimovitz in the spotlight much of the time. But of course, “Schelomo,” Bloch’s wordless evocation of the biblical King Solomon’s complaints in “Ecclesiastes,” also requires a coloristically flexible orchestra that can project emotional intensity – something that would, ideally, be magnified in Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, in the second half.

What could go wrong?

Plenty, it turns out, and I’m still trying to understand why. The Portland Symphony has played more demanding, texturally complex and emotionally pointed works than these, with terrific results: Last season’s account of Zemlinsky’s “Die Seejungfrau,” led by Eckard Preu, the orchestra’s next music director, and Robert Moody’s magnificent farewell performance of Mahler’s considerably grander Second Symphony both came to mind during the orchestra’s alarmingly inert, accident-prone account of the Mahler First.

Actually, the problems began in “Schelomo.” Mr. Haimovitz is a thoughtful player with a beautiful, rounded tone and an unerring sense of how to color a phrase. He brought those qualities to his performance of the Bloch, focusing on the music’s soulfulness rather than technical demands.

The orchestra contributed some fine playing, too – particularly the solo winds – and you could overlook the occasional ragged entrance or odd balance, if only there were some evidence of the work’s drama and spirit in the performance as a whole.

“Schelomo” is a wistful work overall, with long introspective sections, but there are also angry, wrenching, even explosive passages that are crucial to its dramatic arc. Here, the music was consistently understated. That may have been Hangen’s interpretive choice, and perhaps he had a carefully worked-out rationale. If that was the case, nothing in the resulting performance made that rationale clear. It was as if the response to Schelomo’s refrain – “all is vanity” – was, “yeah, whatever.”

The tepidness of the Bloch did not create great expectations for the Mahler, but you had to hope. Mahler, after all, is at the heart of the canon, and orchestras revel in his variegated sound world. As it turned out, understatement remained the core of Hangen’s approach, and the result was a weirdly anemic performance.

Granted, some of Mahler’s subtleties fared well – the offstage trumpets at the start of the work, for example, and the double bass opening of the third movement – and when the score has the orchestra’s brass and percussion play full throttle, the musicians were fully on point. Whenever that happened, you thought that, finally, the performance was about to catch fire and all would be well for the duration.

Alas, the moment those passages faded, it was back to somnambulant tempos, lackadaisical ensemble, occasional flubbed notes and misjudged balances. I had been disappointed, at first, that Hangen opted to lead Mahler’s revised, four-movement score, rather than the original five-movement version. Before the end of the first movement, I was thankful.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: kozinn

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