Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.
For composers, as with anyone else, it is a truism that early life experiences tend to lodge themselves most deeply. Leon Kirchner came of age in 1930s Los Angeles where he was profoundly influenced by Arnold Schoenberg, who had settled there after fleeing Nazi Germany. Schoenberg and his disciples saw modern music as necessarily pointing toward the future, and the more zealous modernists later placed taboos on using the forms and formulas of the past.
Kirchner is now 89, and yet Schoenberg still seems to serve as both aesthetic and ethical lodestar. The composer has lived into the new century of anything goes, and yet his short but forceful piece premiered Thursday night by the Boston Symphony Orchestra still wrestles with the injunctions of an earlier era. The piece's title, "The Forbidden," is taken from Thomas Mann's late great novel "Doctor Faustus," about the downfall of modern Germany and a Schoenbergian composer who makes a pact with the devil.
Of course, Kirchner, who had a long and fruitful teaching career at Harvard University, has never been a particularly doctrinaire composer. His new work is a richly conceived and highly personal negotiation between the "forbidden" Romantic tradition and the dictates of a keenly modern musical mind. The piece is full of tightly knit, dense and angular writing, and yet despite the complexity of its surfaces, this is curiously self-propelling music with an unmistakable expressive urgency. Thursday night, in a committed performance led by James Levine, it made a strong impact in Symphony Hall, one that belied its modest length of just 14 minutes.
To open the evening's program, Levine led the orchestra in a performance of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, one that seemed very deeply felt if not uniformly persuasive. The work's opening had an appealing sense of mystery and even strangeness, with the basses barely audible and the opening solo gestures given a free-floating quality. But as the work progressed, Levine's intense pushing and pulling of the tempo (mostly pulling) made certain sections come across as over-italicized. The conductor nonetheless drew some extremely delicate textures from the woodwinds, and forceful playing from the brass. The third movement had thrilling moments of orchestral virtuosity, but also some passages of unusual raggedness in the strings.
Following the Kirchner, the pianist Maurizio Pollini was on hand to close the concert with a fleet-fingered and remarkably clear account of the Schumann Piano Concerto. The outer movements had the grace, fluidity, and pearly tone you might expect from this keyboard master. Levine and the orchestra were sensitive partners, meeting him at every turn.