PSO director candidate Eckart Preu takes a chance with ‘The Mermaid’

Joshua Roman
Portland Press Herald

Eckart Preu, the German-born music director of the Spokane Symphony in Washington for the last 14 years, is planning to leave that post, and although he also directs orchestras in Cincinnati and Long Beach, California, he hopes to fill the empty place on his dance card with the music directorship of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. One of the three candidates to succeed Robert Moody in that job, Preu (pronounced Proy) was on the podium at Merrill Auditorium on Sunday afternoon to lead the orchestra in works by Alexander Zemlinsky, Johannes Brahms and Johann Strauss Jr.

Preu’s choice of works was telling, and a bit daring, or at least, as daring as you can be without programming a challenging contemporary score. In a way, the Zemlinsky’s “Die Seejungfrau” (”The Mermaid”) – a big, three-movement symphony, completed in 1903 and running around 45 minutes – was the next best thing.

Though steeped in rich-hued Romanticism, this hefty score is not widely traveled, partly because it was lost until 1984, but also because it has only been in recent decades that conductors (most notably, James Conlon) have championed Zemlinsky at all.

To devote the first half of a concert, in what amounts to a job audition, to a work that few in the audience will know, is itself a message: It tells us that Preu is willing to take a chance on a piece from outside the standard canon that he believes in and that he is confident that he can persuade both the orchestra and the audience to share his enthusiasm.


Preu seemed thoroughly comfortable in this hybrid style, and so did the orchestra, which is often at its best in big, Romantic textures, particularly in works that also include richly detailed solo writing. Charles Dimmick, the concertmaster, contributed a sweetly turned account of the mermaid’s recurring theme, and there were superb contributions from the horns, trombones and individual winds, all within rich, transparent string textures. More crucially, Preu and the players conveyed a palpable sense of the mermaid’s emotional life, which ranges from wonder and rapture to heartbreak and serenity.

For the second half of the program, Preu turned his attention to more familiar fare. In Brahms’ Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello and Orchestra (Op. 102), his soloists were Joshua Roman, who gave a fine account of Mason Bates’ Cello Concerto here in 2016, and violinist Caroline Goulding, in her first Portland Symphony appearance. Both played magnificently, and they took care to match each other’s phrasing so that the solo lines often had the tautness of a chamber music performance within the work’s grander textures.
Read the rest of the review here