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MUSIC REVIEW

Trying to grasp the wonders of Wuorinen

When the BSO turned 125 last season, the orchestra celebrated with a raft of commissions. The completed works have been trickling in, and the coming weeks will bring premieres of pieces by Kaija Saariaho and Gunther Schuller. This week, the orchestra, under James Levine, is unveiling Charles Wuorinen's Eighth Symphony ("Theologoumena"), which received its premiere Thursday night in Symphony Hall, together with Haydn's Symphony No. 22 and Brahms's Symphony No. 4.

Wuorinen is an unreconstructed modernist, a composer of bold and thorny music that does not cajole a listener into being friends but rather hurls its abundant content at you, ready or not. The high-modernist tradition Wuorinen represents is in retreat over much of the American orchestral map, but not here in Boston. Levine is one of Wuorinen's staunchest advocates, and he believes in this music passionately. The new Eighth Symphony is a three-movement work lasting a half - hour, but it also has a 21-minute preface, a symphonic poem called "Theologoumenon" that Levine premiered with the Met Orchestra just last month in Carnegie Hall.

In case you were wondering, a theologoumenon, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, is a theological statement "distinguished from an inspired doctrine or revelation." It is "non-dogmatic" in Wuorinen's words. One might wonder whether this subtitle is also a veiled reference to Wuorinen's continued voluntary allegiance to a 12-tone tradition that was itself once unhealthily viewed as dogma.

Whatever the case, both the tone poem and the symphony, we are told, were inspired by an ancient neo-Platonist theologoumenon about our inability to grasp or express the wonders of the divine essence. It all sounds appropriately Schoenbergian, in the manner of "Moses und Aron."

But all this intellectual scaffolding feels irrelevant when the Eighth Symphony comes charging out of the gate, hitting you with waves of heterodox sound. The brass fire off jaggedly clipped fanfares; short slivers of rapid melody snake their way from the percussion through all different parts of the orchestra.

The second movement softens the focus and slows the pace, bringing out interesting rhythms, colors, and shifts of timbre. Percussion scampers restlessly in the finale, and in the end, massive squawking chords all but bring down the imagery curtain, though a short coda slips out first.

It is easy to admire this vigorous, confident, masterfully crafted score. But it was also easy to sympathize with large portions of the audience, who received this work with only polite applause. Frustrated muttering could also be overheard at an open rehearsal earlier in the day. The work is so dense and saturated with information that it is nearly impossible to fully grasp with just one or two hearings. But even so, I suspect that many more renditions would not make the piece much easier to love unless you were predisposed to Wuorinen's musical language.

The BSO's execution was superb. Those who never warmed to the premiere were given ample compensation by way of some crisp Haydn and some luxurious yet forceful Brahms.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

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