The Portland Symphony Orchestra has filled the time between Robert Moody’s departure last May and the start of Eckart Preu’s tenure in September with a season of guest conductors. On Sunday, the visiting conductor was Marcelo Lehninger, a Brazilian-born conductor who now directs the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan.
Lehninger is not entirely a new face hereabouts. He conducted the Portland Symphony only two seasons ago in a program built around the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony. I remember Lehninger’s Tchaikovsky as thoughtful and solidly played, if not necessarily revelatory, and that was largely my impression of his performance on Sunday, when he conducted the Dvořák Ninth Symphony (“New World”), the Sibelius Violin Concerto, with Benjamin Beilman as the soloist, and a recent work by Kristin Kuster.
That may sound like faint praise, but revelatory performances are few and far between, and there’s a lot to be said for thoughtful and solid. The most striking aspect of Lehninger’s work, this time, was his adherence to brisk tempos, which enlivened the outer movements of the Dvořák, and made the folk- and Spiritual-inspired themes sing.
For Dvořák, the Ninth Symphony was a souvenir of his visit to the United States, from 1892 to 1895, during which he was the director of the National Conservatory of Music in America in New York City. But the work was also an object lesson for American composers hoping to create a distinctly American style.
In many ways, this Czech composer was the perfect composer to teach that lesson. Like many composers in countries outside Germany in the late 19thcentury, Dvořák was intent on breaking away from the dominant Germanic style and finding a national voice of his own. He believed that a country’s musical soul could be found in its folk music, so just as he drew on Czech folk themes to develop his own musical accent, he counseled American composers to listen to American folk themes – the best of which, he argued, were African-American Spirituals. (He also made a case for looking at Native American folklore, although his main influence in that realm was Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha.”)
You can hear a hint of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in the symphony, and other themes seem to emerge from the Spiritual style, even if they don’t directly quote specific melodies. The orchestra rendered these themes with an appealing shapeliness, and apart from an occasional lack of unity on chordal entrances, particularly in the slow movement, the players responded well to Lehninger, who found ways to offset the work’s more attention-grabbing, energetic surfaces by lingering over the wistful currents that also run through the work.
In the Sibelius, Lehninger was a deferential, almost self-effacing accompanist, who left the spotlight almost entirely to Beilman, who played the piece brilliantly. Sibelius’s score embraces extremes, and Beilman was clearly comfortable with them, producing a throat, textured sound in more dramatic, combative sections, and an opulently silken tone in more ruminative or emotionally settled passages.
Lehninger opened the program with Kuster’s “Moxie,” an evocation of the feisty quality of spirit, not the medicinal-tasting New England soft drink. It was commissioned by Marin Alsop to celebrate the centenary of the orchestra she directs, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, in 2016. It is built of hard-driven, sharply accented, repeating rhythms that give it the character of a locomotive come to life in a burst of vibrant string and brass hues.
Not a lot happens in the piece, but it runs only six minutes – enough to announce itself and show off some an orchestra’s energy and color, but not long enough to outlast its welcome.
The orchestra dedicated the concert to the memory of Debby Dabczynski, a cellist with the PSO for 44 years – from 1974 until last December – who died of cancer in March.
Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org