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Music Review

BSO leads off with monumental choral works

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / September 28, 2009

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James Levine seems fond of starting the Boston Symphony Orchestra subscription season on a note both sober and monumental; that is, with a large choral masterwork - or two. Last year the first subscription program after opening night was Brahms’s “German Requiem.’’ This year, on Saturday evening, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus once again filed onto the risers in Symphony Hall. The program was given over to Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms’’ and Mozart’s Requiem.

You could create several interesting programs exclusively from music that the BSO has commissioned through the years. Among the best known works are of course Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Stravinsky’s remarkable “Symphony of Psalms,’’ the latter being written for Serge Koussevitzky and the BSO in 1930. (In the end, Koussevitzky fell ill, so the honor of the world premiere went to Ernest Ansermet and the Brussels Philharmonic Society.)

It is a beautiful and, in its way, abstemious work, a religious piece with an austere grandeur that feels at once primitive and modern. A few years before it was written Stravinsky had returned to the Russian Orthodox Church, but the psalms are nonetheless treated almost as found objects rather than as personal declarations of faith. The composer also gives the orchestra a very distinctive sonic profile by removing the upper strings and clarinets. What one hears is familiar yet strangely distant, and the ear, subtly disoriented, takes nothing for granted.

The evening’s performances had a rough-hewn quality, but Levine brought out the Stravinsky’s pungent lyricism and the chorus sang with haunting beauty. Mozart’s Requiem made an apt pairing and the reading was well-paced and dramatically executed, with the large and forceful chorus giving the work an epic bearing. Soprano Grazia Doronzio, mezzo-soprano Anke Vondung, tenor Michael Schade, and bass Eric Owens made up the fine quartet of soloists.

A program note recalled the life of George Kidder, who died on Aug. 20 at 84. While he was not in the public spotlight, he was influential as BSO president from 1987 to 1994, presiding over the expansion of Tanglewood. The orchestra dedicated these performances to his memory.

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

BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA James Levine, conductor

At: Symphony Hall (Saturday night, repeats tomorrow)

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