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Just two weeks after Music Director Laureate and legendary conductor Seiji Ozawa returned to the Boston Symphony Orchestra for a spectacular all-French program, it was Maestro James Levine who took the podium Saturday night for an ambitious program featuring works that span the spectrum of musical genres. From the classical symphony of Beethoven’s 7th to the Neo-classical ballet of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” to the new horn concerto of famed American composer Elliott Carter, concertgoers young and old indulged in another musical treat of the highest quality in historic Symphony Hall. In just under five years, Levine has brought fresh musical interpretations to the score and immaculate playing to the orchestra, heightening the reputation of the BSO as one of the leading orchestras in the country.
The evening began with a reading of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony in A Major, Opus 92. With the exception of the grandiose introduction in which a slow-striding theme made its appearance, the rest of the symphony flew by at full speed. Levine brought out the full intensity of the orchestra, propelling the music by the obsessive rhythms Beethoven wrote. In particular, the brass—led by Thomas Rolfs (trumpet), Toby Oft (trombone), and James Sommerville (horn)—created an everlasting impression with piercing sounds throughout the hall, truly making the first movement one that sets the tone for the entire concert.
But it was the second movement of the symphony that truly displayed the artistry of the orchestra. The Allegretto resembled a funeral march in the somber key of E minor, and though the orchestra played it a bit too fast, Levine still managed to evoke loneliness and sorrow in every member of the audience. The strings delicately tossed the melody around, all the while building up to a climax in which it seemed the funeral march itself was passing us by. To create this adequately was not easy, but Levine seemed to construct such vivid imagery with ease. Brought to life by a continuing rhythmic momentum, the melody finally died away as the funeral march continued off into the distance. The symphony returned to a lively dance with the onset of the Presto. This time, images of an elegant ball came to mind. Skirling strings and a majestic trio in between the scherzo were followed by a stately and spirited finale. The percussion drove the finale, bringing the energetic piece to its apex and the audience to its feet. Not surprisingly, the BSO was greeted with three standing ovations going into intermission.
Following intermission, soloist and principal horn James Sommerville performed the 2006 Carter Horn Concerto, which was commissioned by the BSO and written especially for Sommerville, for the second straight year. Sommerville played the one-movement concerto with mastery and confidence. The Carter is everything but Beethoven: like any other modern piece, dissonance, sharp tones, and 12-note chords appear in copious numbers. And yet, Sommerville still managed to achieve a certain lyricism with his superb playing. The orchestra, including marimba, plays a sparse role in the piece, as the soloist distinguished himself from the ensemble by the end.
The BSO returned to familiar waters with Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” to end the program. Now a staple in the symphony repertoire, the “Rite of Spring” was actually greeted at its premiere by one of the most infamous riots in the history of music. The eerie sounds shocked the audience; after all, such unusual harmonies and unresolved chords are hardly the accompaniment for a standard ballet. Yet it was this brilliant integration of folk tunes and rhythmic manipulation that was needed to complement accurately a ballet presenting an actual ritual of sacrifice by prehistoric people. The BSO highlighted these obscure rhythms, bringing the piece’s barbaric beauty to life. At the same time, the musicians were expressive and lyrical when they needed to be.
With the next concert series not until next year, Levine and the Symphony Orchestra left 2008 on a high note. Levine’s focus on precision and openness to new interpretation truly provided Bostonians with an early holiday treat.
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