For James Levine's final program in his inaugural season, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's first American music director arranged to commission two American composers born a few months apart in the same year (1938) and who represent complementary but not antagonistic strains in contemporary music.
John Harbison's ''Darkbloom" is an overture to an opera based on Vladimir Nabokov's ''Lolita" that he decided not to write, for obvious reasons, among them the problem of finding a nymphet of the proper age and appearance who could sing over an operatic orchestra, and the reluctance of opera houses to get involved with controversial subject matter that has become even touchier in the decades since the novel was published.
The music does the job an opera overture is supposed to; it offers a promise of what's to come by creating a distinctive color, atmosphere, texture. The music opens with a seductively swaying rhythm, and melodies associated with the not-exactly guileless heroine and the not-exactly honest male protagonist. A playful later episode depicts a tennis game that is not exactly innocent in the eyes of the man who is observing it, and ends with high, shimmering laughter, or what the composer calls ''a frail epiphany." Sexy, funny, dangerous -- quite a lot for 10 minutes to accomplish, but Harbison has the imagination and the chops to carry it off.
Boston audiences are at a disadvantage when it comes to the demanding music of Charles Wuorinen. Thirty years ago the composer stirred up some controversy at Tanglewood in connection with his Concerto for Electric Violin, and until Levine came along, Wuorinen had no prominent advocates at the BSO. We might have felt more at home in the world of his Fourth Piano Concerto last night if we had heard the earlier three. As it was, the response to the premiere was cordial and polite, but not more. Perhaps some people felt the way they felt about Wednesday night's storm -- there was nothing wrong with it, but it was one too many, and it vanished without leaving much trace.
Still there were many moments in the piece that compelled attention and made this listener willing to hear it again -- the chamber-music quality of Part I, with coloratura elaborations in the piano part; the rhythmic pulsations of the finale and the opening-out of musical space at the end before the piece slips quietly out the door. And no composer could wish stronger witnesses for the defense than pianist Peter Serkin, Levine, and the BSO.
Serkin also played Stravinsky's concise, precise, and enigmatic ''Movements," in which the pointilistic piano part is set against instruments and instrumental groups that can sustain. Serkin played with precision and a prodigious variety of attack, touch, and dynamics.
Levine's approach to Brahms's Second Symphony was marked by energy, glorious sound, formal logic, and spontaneous combustion. In this context you could hear how dissonant Brahms once sounded, how exploratory his reach; you could understand why he was the least popular modern composer in the early years of the BSO. A critic famously proposed a sign above the doors, ''Exit in case of Brahms." Last night people stayed and cheered.