James Levine demonstrates he's worth waiting for

Boston Symphony scores big with new conductor at podium


October 27, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK - What with the Red Sox perhaps on the verge of lifting a dreaded curse, a resident senator running neck-and-neck against an incumbent president and, now, a new leader generating sparks from the podium of the city's famed orchestra, Boston has a lot to crow about these days.

Whatever happens at the World Series or the voting booth, the musical advantage should last for a long while.

Last weekend, James Levine took his first bow as the 14th music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the first American-born holder of the title in the ensemble's 124 years.

The season opened three weeks earlier - Levine's other longtime job as music director of New York's Metropolitan Opera delayed his arrival. But the orchestra was used to waiting for him; his appointment was announced three years ago. By all accounts, the musicians were so happy to get Levine that scheduling issues didn't matter.

The portly, bushy-haired conductor certainly made up for lost time by plunging into the job with one of the supreme tests in the repertoire, Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8, nicknamed "Symphony of a Thousand" because at least that many vocalists and instrumentalists took part in its 1910 premiere in Munich. Levine led a force of about 325 at Boston's Symphony Hall, where, various press reports agree, he hit one out of the park.

On Monday night, he repeated the concert and the triumph with the same forces at a sold-out Carnegie Hall. The sheer decibels of the performance probably registered in New Jersey; the expressive beauty underlying all that power enveloped and electrified the theater.

As a here-I-am gesture, Levine couldn't have made a stronger impact. That he summoned such terrific force from the participants while seated on a cushioned stool (back troubles have made it hard for the 61-year-old to conduct any other way) and making minimal gestures only added to the effect.

Mahler's 90-minute symphony, which concludes with an incandescent glimpse into "the indescribable," an eternity where we can attain all that is denied us in this life, inspired in Levine an interpretation full of compelling, sensitive, penetrating touches.

He missed some opportunities on Monday to bring more depth, as well as sweep, to Part I, a setting of the ancient hymn Veni, creator spiritus. In Part II, Mahler's treatment of the finale to Goethe's Faust, I would have enjoyed even greater elongation of the pealing apotheosis. And the tension-destroying intermission between those two parts was a mistake. But such quibbles faded quickly in the heat of the performance.

Honed by Serge Koussevitsky and Charles Munch during the 20th century (Seiji Osawa's recent, seemingly endless tenure ultimately proved uneven), the Boston Symphony remains the classiest of American orchestras. It sounded more refined and responsive than ever as it delved into Mahler's universe of sonic and spiritual ecstasy.

The strings, in particular, excelled, shimmering exquisitely in the gentlest moments, summoning plenty of tonal weight for the climactic ones. (Levine's preference for seating the second violins on the right, opposite the firsts, is something I wish more conductors would follow.)

The brass and woodwinds proved exceptionally sturdy. (It was nice to hear former Baltimore Symphony flutist Elizabeth Rowe again; she's principal flutist for Boston now.) Whether at a whisper or a roar, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus did stunning work; the American Boychoir shone, too. Both ensembles sang from memory, a class act in itself.

Reflecting the Met side of Levine, the soloist roster included several notable opera singers, among them Heidi Grant Murphy (a truly celestial voice), Jane Eaglen (often flat, but exciting), Stephanie Blythe and John Relyea. Substituting for Ben Heppner, who had sung in Boston, Vinson Cole phrased his lines exquisitely.

In the end, the concert affirmed that a valued conductor and orchestra have entered into a most promising alignment.

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