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Boston Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by James Levine

Symphony Hall, Boston, MA

September 26, 2009

James Levine led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a sold-out show of spiritual awakening last Saturday at Symphony Hall, presenting Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Mozart’s Requiem in D minor.

Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms opened the concert, striking a brilliant E minor chord whose foreboding quality immediately gripped the audience’s attention. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang strongly, with fortes on the verge of shrieking that brought out the piece’s stark orchestration, which conspicuously lacks violins and violas.

I had one qualm, though. In the last movement, when the chorus fixates on a motif suggesting enlightened trance (“Laudate eum in cymbalis…”), the mood could have been calmer, more fleeting had the performers dropped in dynamic range, relishing the fragility of the state.

Interestingly, the Symphony of Psalms, considered by some to be Stravinsky’s greatest achievement, is rooted in the Boston area since it was commissioned by the BSO in 1930 to celebrate the orchestra’s fiftieth anniversary. Its strange tonality hinted at what was yet to come: that two centuries earlier, Mozart broke ground with the unique sounds of his Requiem.

The Requiem is steeped in lore regarding the circumstances in which it came into existence. Fact, however, has it that the piece was commissioned by a mysterious “gray messenger,” whose odd visit, along with Mozart’s declining health and depression, influenced Mozart to consider him an agent of Death. In reality, the “gray messenger” worked for Count Walsegg-Stuppach, who insisted on secrecy because he intended to pass off the Requiem as his own.

Several projects, which included completing La clemenza di Tito in a mere eighteen days, and his ill health obstructed Mozart’s ability to focus on the Requiem during the last months of his life. He began to believe he was writing music for his own funeral, fearing he had somehow poisoned himself. In the end, Mozart died prematurely shortly before his thirty-sixth birthday, leaving the work unfinished. The job was left to Joseph Eybler and Franz Xaver Süssmayer, a pupil of Mozart, to finish, and it is apparent the two worked relentlessly to realize the master’s conception.

The opening lines prompted quiet outbursts of acknowledgment from the audience in deference to Mozart’s genius, to the masterpiece’s ineffable beauty. Levine’s tempi were decidedly brisk, underscoring the piece’s urgency. Though the strings struggled to keep up in “Dies Irae,” by far the fastest rendition I’ve heard, it was as effective as any in arousing the fear of God’s wrath.

Also, Levine favored richness and sonority, emphasized by his choice of soloists. The soloists; Grazia Doronzio (soprano), Anke Vondung (alto), Michael Schade (tenor), and Eric Owens (bass); collectively formed a hearty quartet that conveyed genuine human devotion: earnest, yet flawed. Schade and Owens, in particular, resonated such that their voices seemed to have endless depth. Doronzio phrased beautifully, but her velvet timbre was often overwhelmed by exaggerated vibrato. Vondung, who opted for subtlety, sensitively weaved between the other voices with her lush, patrician voice.

Again, though only once or twice during the performance, I yearned for more dynamic contrast in the chorus. Because of Levine’s faster tempo, it would have been more effective had the female counterpart in “Confutatis,” when it aspired to angelic heights, sang more delicately.

This epic concert, featuring two of the greatest works written for chorus and orchestra, is only the beginning of this year’s BSO concert season. Soon, starting in late October, Levine will take on some of the most influential works in Western music history: all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies.