One of the great things about Portland is that we have a lot of cultural institutions that cities our size typically lack. One of the annoying things about Portland is that funding for these organizations tends to be provided by subscribers who are no longer interested in having their preconceptions challenged. They want their Arthur Miller, their Wyeth, their Mozart, and then they want to go home.
On Sunday, conductor Robert Moody and the Portland Symphony Orchestra rather awesomely revealed a willingness to prod and provoke their audience.
Their "Head and Heart" matinee began with the gentle melodrama of Ravel's Pavane pour une infante defunte, but the group really began to pierce the Merrill's slight aural barrier between the stage and the audience halfway through an intoxicating rendition of Mozart's manic 25th Symphony. Both were greeted with respectable applause and the requisite meaningful sighs.
The finale, though, was a performance of Brett William Dietz's Headcase, an interpretation of the young contemporary composer's experience suffering a stroke and its debilitating, maddening aftermath. Dietz's operetta is a multi-media piece, with photos from Dietz's post-stroke bedside journal and MRI and brain scans shown on a screen, and recorded electronics and vocals from Dietz piped in from offstage. The orchestra was pared down to a half-dozen members, not including guest baritone Timothy Jones.
This was — as Moody's advance warning of bad language indicated — an honest-to-goodness new music performance, in Portland! Dietz's piece wasn't perfect (the intertitles between Headcase's movements were too literal, detracting from the dynamic and unpredictable experience of the music), but it contained magnificent moments: a movement called "Please Try to Count" found Dietz's narration struggling to find order, while Jones forcefully sang a sequence of numbers, and members of the orchestra barked out orders and questions between notes in thrilling staccato rhythms. The sense of pain and information overload was akin to a Nico Muhly piece, which made Headcase's soft and lovely finale, of just piano and xylophone, all the more cathartic.
The reception was what you might have expected. A solid contingent had coats-in-hand while others applauded; as many or more briskly initiated a standing ovation. As Maestro Moody has just extended his contract with the PSO through 2016, I left the auditorium trusting that Moody would continue to push the time-honored boundaries of both his musicians and his audience. If there's any possibility of my generation joining the PSO's oldish audience, Moody seems eager and well-equipped to seize it.