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Music Review

Welcome sights on opening night as Levine returns to lead BSO

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / September 26, 2008
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Gala opening night concerts are not the first place one thinks to look for hard news. They are more often a chance for patrons to welcome the orchestra back from its late-summer hiatus, and to enjoy a light pre-dinner program featuring a high-wattage celebrity soloist.

So Wednesday night's rousing opening of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 128th season was at least a partial departure from type thanks to two pieces of actual news. First, the night marked the return of music director James Levine to the podium after kidney surgery that sidelined him for most of the Tanglewood season. The crowd welcomed him back with a warm ovation before a note was played. Levine looked healthy, and in comments delivered earlier in the day to local media, described himself as extremely eager to dive into making music with the orchestra. His enthusiasm showed on the podium. At one point after the evening's bright-hued and festive curtain-raiser - Glinka's "Ruslan and Ludmila" Overture - Levine spun around in his swivel chair a full 360 degrees. Somehow the gesture said it all.

The other piece of news came in the form of glowing half-moons that drew the eyes upward beyond the second balcony. Or to put it more directly: the windows are back. Symphony Hall's two rows of clerestory windows had been shuttered in the early 1940s as a wartime precaution, so the last time concerts were graced by natural light, Koussevitzky was on the podium and FDR was in the White House. Wednesday night's early start-time meant that the sky was still lit for the downbeat, and the effect was striking, less for the quantities of actual daylight entering the hall than for the way the space itself seemed to breathe more easily. It's a real improvement.

Another refreshing departure from the typical gala concert script was the presence of a young rising soloist in the place of a big-name superstar. More specifically, for the Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin," the BSO tapped the Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska, who sang with a beautifully clear, lustrous and expansive voice. If her dramatic portrayal of the impassioned Tatiana felt a bit two-dimensional at times, Kovalevska still showed herself to be a singer of enormous potential.

The orchestra's most extended time in the spotlight came courtesy of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." As warhorses go, this one has a rich history with the BSO. Koussevitzky commissioned the now-classic Ravel orchestration and gave its American premiere with the orchestra in 1924. Levine also scheduled the work on his very first appearance with the BSO in 1972. He led it Wednesday night with sensitivity and a sure sense of dramatic pacing, and the orchestra sounded well-rested and duly brilliant. Tempos from the opening Promenade tended toward the broad and spacious. Thomas Rolfs's tone in the various trumpet solos was by turns noble and expressively pointed; Kenneth Radnofsky's buttery saxophone playing drew you seamlessly into the Old Castle and bassoonist Richard Svoboda's dark-amber tone made you want to stay. In Bydlo, Mike Roylance floated a warm and resonant tuba solo. The tone produced by the strings, when it counted, was rock-solid and deep.

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

Boston Symphony Orchestra

James Levine, conductor

At: Symphony Hall, Wednesday night

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