Eckart Preu has chosen major pieces of music and underperformed gems for his second season as music director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. Preu announced the 2020-21 concert season from the stage of Merrill Auditorium on Sunday afternoon.

Eckart Preu Courtesy of Portland Symphony Orchestra

It includes a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” as part of a Bach birthday bash Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, 2021, with the Masterworks choir of ChoralArt Society. “If you look at the top three pieces ever, it’s there,” Preu said of the St. Matthew Passion, which reflects the trial, suffering and death of Jesus. “It was groundbreaking in many ways, in terms of its depth and the dramatic influence on future work. This is one of the best creations of mankind.”

Preu will showcase the orchestra with Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony No. 3 to open the season, Oct. 4 and 6. The PSO last performed this symphony under Robert Moody in 2015, when the orchestra began a three-season exploration of Beethoven’s symphonies. While it’s unusual for an orchestra to repeat a major work so soon, it makes sense to Preu because “Beethoven needs to be there. There’s no way around that. I know they’ve done Beethoven quite a bit, but I haven’t done Beethoven with them. So that’s going to be interesting. When you go to Beethoven, you’ve got to show your true colors. There’s no fluff. It’s like Mozart. You’ve got to be as honest as you can be.”

He chose the piece as the opener for his second season because it will be a good marker of the chemistry he and the musicians will have achieved in their first concert season together, and an indication of where they might be headed as an ensemble. The Beethoven and Bach are big, challenging pieces, and the kind of music around which an orchestra can coalesce and grow as a unit, he said. “Size doesn’t bother me, and the musicians, they are all used to doing big stuff. If you can climb Mount Everest, you can pretty much do anything. It is an important journey for both the orchestra and the music director. A lot of this is designed for us to grow together.”

In the hidden gem category, Preu has programmed Dvorak’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, which the PSO has never performed. That will share the bill with Beethoven in the season-opening concert. There’s a focus on contemporary work and female composers and performers throughout the season, but both of those points of emphasis are part of Preu’s overall programming philosophy and not a thematic arc, he said.

In all, the season will include 42 concerts, including classical, pops, Magic of Christmas, youth and family concerts. The season begins in October and continues through June.

JoAnn Falletta, one of the busiest conductors in America, is one of two Grammy-winning guest conductors who will perform in Portland. She will conduct a “Love Stories” classical concert on Feb. 14, 2021, with guest pianist Fabio Bidini and a program of Rossini and Rachmaninoff, among others. The other Grammy winner is local. Bangor Symphony Orchestra music director Lucas Richman will make his PSO debut for a pops concert with another Mainer, Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary fame. They will perform together Oct. 17 and 18, and the program will feature the ageless folk classic “Garden Song,” written by Dave Mallett of Sebec.

Richman won a Grammy in 2011 for best classical crossover album for his work with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on Christopher Tin’s classical/world fusion album “Calling All Dawns.”

Ruth Reinhardt will conduct a “Barber & Brahms” classical concert on Nov. 10. Reinhardt was a guest conductor in Portland last year, and Preu wanted to bring her back because she and the orchestra worked well together. “When it works, it provides a great experience for the orchestra and a great experience for the audience, as well,” he said.

This year’s “Magic of Christmas” will run Dec. 10-20, and other pops concerts are “Dancing in the Street: The Music of Motown,” Jan. 23-24, 2021; a tribute to Louis Armstrong on Feb. 27-28, 2021; and a celebration of songwriters featuring the music of Paul Simon, James Taylor and Neil Diamond, March 12-14, 2021.

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