The three years of waiting are over, and last night the promise of turnpike billboards, taxitops, and busbacks was fulfilled: James Levine conducted his first concert as the 14th music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. And a new era in the life of the orchestra and its public began with a bang -- the biggest musical bang of all, Mahler's Eighth Symphony, dubbed at the time of its premiere "The Symphony of a Thousand," because that's how many performers there were. "Very Barnum & Bailey," Mahler remarked.
By the official count there were 327 musicians last night in Symphony Hall, and the house crew had to remove more than 5 rows of seats in order to accommodate the stage extension -- the orchestra, supplemental players, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the American Boychoir, and eight of the world's most prestigious singers, all of them giving their all. The mighty Symphony Hall organ, recently restored at a cost of $2 million, made its presence felt when James David Christie led off with a mighty, rumbling low E-flat that was like shock therapy.
The 328th person on the stage was the most important, Levine, who entered with a face-spanning smile, took one brief bow, then settled on his high, velvet-upholstered chair and started to work. His conducting was undemonstrative, but vividly detailed and obviously inspiring. Only a little of it was invisible weaving; most of the time his baton sliced through plenty of space, and decisively. Over the last decade, Levine has had trouble with intermittent tremors in his left arm, but that wasn't noticeable last night. He didn't use his left hand all the time, but when he did it was meaningful -- it swept across the music like a surfer riding a perfect wave. If anything was jumpy, it was his left leg and foot.
Ceremonial occasions like the opening of a new music directorship demand something loud and celebratory, and the Mahler Eighth certainly fills the bill. It was composed in a fever of inspiration -- Mahler later said he felt as if he were taking dictation. The first large section is a fervid setting of the ancient Latin hymn, "Veni, Creator Spiritus" ("Come, Creator Spirit"); the second, even larger, is a setting of the final scene from Goethe's "Faust," a cosmic apotheosis in which sinning, aspiring man is redeemed. The two sections are full of contrast, yet tightly interlinked thematically. Mahler intended us to hear something more than human voices -- the planets and suns revolving in their courses.
With the premiere Mahler enjoyed the greatest success of his lifetime, although the symphony has not been universally admired -- Stravinsky, when he heard it, said that it seemed like an awful lot of effort to prove that two plus two equals four. The element of Mahler that has made him essential to contemporary audiences -- the personal, confessional, existential drama developed through juxtaposed and overlapping styles -- is almost totally absent. This is Mahler in public mode -- it was the Mass he never wrote.
The adult and children's choruses, singing from memory, poured out floods of sound yet near the end could pull back to a mystical hush. There was an occasional rough edge or sloppy entry in the orchestral playing, but an edge-of-the-chair intensity and excitement carried all before it. There was ecstatic singing from all the soloists, including mezzo Yvonne Naef, baritone Eike Wilm Schulte, and the warm, supple bass John Relyea. Mezzo Stephanie Blythe was commanding, and the bronze tenor of Ben Heppner seemed tireless. The three contrasting sopranos were all superb -- heroic Jane Eaglen flinging out high C's; lyrical Hei-Kyung Hong, and celestial Heidi Grant Murphy, floating in from on high.
Levine never relaxed his hold in the first movement -- he was hurling a firebomb, and the climactic cry of "Kindle our reason with light" was terrifying. But his real command of musical architecture, of texture, of contrast and momentum came into play in the longer "Faust" sequence which moved inexorably towards its full and fulfilling climax. The audience leaped to its feet. Singers used to prolonged solo curtain calls joined the choruses, chorus masters, and orchestra in applauding the man of the hour who has accepted the greater challenge of becoming the BSO's man for all seasons.