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classical review: BSO Reinstills Energy into Commissioned Works

Fine Performances of Stravinsky, Bart..k, Dutilleux

By Nivair H. Gabriel

Boston Symphony Orchestra

James Levine, conductor

Symphony Hall, Boston

Saturday, Dec. 3, 2005

Last weekend’s Boston Symphony Orchestra performance was the first of conductor James Levine’s programs that celebrate rising classic works commissioned by the BSO. The BSO performed at the top of their game for the entire first half of the concert; they were energetic, excited, and completely consumed by the first two pieces. After the intermission, they were not nearly as lively, but they regained their fervor for the most famous music of the night — Bart k’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” which had its world premiere with the BSO in 1944.

A symphony commissioned for the BSO’s 75th anniversary and given its world premiere at Symphony Hall in 1959 opened the concert. Written by French composer Henri Dutilleux, “Symphony No. 2 ‘Le Double’” is a haunting and sweet piece that thrills to the core. The strings had a lot to do here, and they absorbed their responsibility well. The first movement was as “misterioso” as it could be, sending chills up the spine with its beauty and grace. They maintained the mood through the second movement, when the melody emerged like a beast, to the final movement, which ended on a high sustained note. It was a festival of loveliness, perfectly played.

Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms,” which was commissioned for the BSO’s 50th anniversary and has since become a classic work, continued the eerie and pretty mood as it began. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus sung Psalms 38, 39, and 150, matching perfectly with the music; neither instruments nor voices took over completely. Rather, both sounds blended to form triumphant moments of exaltation leading into a soft and reverent ending. Most notable was a sweet clarinet solo, which flowed into the chorus. Here the BSO picked up even more speed and the Tanglewood Chorus joined in, doing Stravinsky magnificent justice.

Unfortunately, the intermission seemed to break their stride. Elliott Carter’s “Boston Concerto” was odd and disorienting: it didn’t fit with the rest of the pieces in the program, and the lack of excitement in the performers was obvious. The piece required complex instrumentation, including a xylophone, a marimba, cowbells, and maracas. It was written to be modern — the BSO gave a world premiere of the piece in 2003 — and sounded as much. The excessive pizzicato grew tiring, and despite a few measures of gorgeous harp playing, the piece did not deliver.

Bart k’s “Concerto for Orchestra” picked up where the “Symphony of Psalms” left off; it started on a creepy, lovely note with harp and strings. The first movement was so sweet and smooth it was almost edible. What really shined, however, were the third and fourth. They were full of celebration, with wild glissandi and a high, expectant final note. Eyes closed, I realized that this was the only piece of music that seemed to erupt from all around me.

Though the Dutilleux was inspiring, there is no doubt in conductor Levine’s statement that Bart k’s work is now a respected masterpiece. Levine’s animated conducting of each one made this evening fantastic and memorable.