Avner Dorman's music stole the show.

Avner Dorman’s music stole the show.

Something very unusual happened at this evening’s Eugene Symphony concert. The audience listened to two contemporary works, both written by a living, breathing composer — and preferred them to Beethoven.

The newer works were by Avner Dorman, a 40-year-old Israeli-born composer who is visiting Eugene this week in a residency with the orchestra. His two pieces  Astrolatry, a short reflection on the stars, and Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!, a concerto for two percussionists, turned out to be quick, dramatic and easy to like.

In fact both works seemed to me to be movie soundtracks for a sophisticated ’60s film with a dash of Gershwin and Bernstein thrown in. (My seatmate said she was looking at one point for Indiana Jones in the swamp.)

Conducted by music director Danail Rachev, the orchestra — and then the orchestra with guest percussionists Steve Hearn and Galen Lemmon — knocked both pieces, musically speaking, out of the park. Dorman’s work may be easy to listen to, but it sounds challenging to play, with lots of layers of contrasting rhythms and color for the musicians to sort out. It all worked.

And when the first half of the evening’s program came to a close, the audience was on its feet, cheering loudly.

Not so, sadly, with the Beethoven — his sixth symphony, the “Pastorale.”

Perhaps Rachev and the musicians gave it their all on the Dorman. Maybe it’s that the sixth just isn’t as popular as, say, the fifth or the ninth. But the symphony, though played sweetly in places, lacked luster and verve. While it was certainly pastoral, the performance, which was also ragged on occasion, missed out on the tight, submerged tension that keeps Beethoven’s work so interesting.

The audience got to its feet once more at the end — but this time to go home.