Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.
Guest conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi's second program with the Boston Symphony Orchestra this season was a triumph. Without diminishing anyone's achievement, it is worth noting that James Levine's weeks as music director have helped make a higher standard of execution possible; even for Dohnanyi, the orchestra couldn't have played Mahler's First Symphony this well a few years ago; nor, perhaps, would it have approached Sir Harrison Birtwistle's ''The Shadow of Night" with such expertise and evident enthusiasm.
Birtwistle, now 70, has been one of Britain's leading composers for 40 years; this piece, premiered by Dohnanyi with the Cleveland Orchestra in 2002, is the first music of his the BSO has played. It's a 30-minute nocturne for orchestra that is also an anatomy of melancholy, one of the four temperaments that dominated medical and philosophical thought for centuries, the one most associated with night, and, in Birtwistle's words, ''an inspired spiritual condition." The music is dark, moody, and somehow three-dimensional, a function not only of the composer's mastery of the orchestra but of his entirely personal sense of form. The ear can wander around in it and constantly discover unsettling surprises. The performance lived vividly in the moment, and there was an astonishing piccolo solo by Linda Toote. The audience responded with warmth and brought the smiling composer to the stage three times.
It's worth remembering how long it took Mahler's music to catch on; the First Symphony did not become a staple of the repertoire until Erich Leinsdorf's tenure as music director in the 1960s. Dohnanyi's performance was remarkable for the intensity and variety of characterization he brought to each episode, for his mastery of transition and juxtapositions, and for his large-scale vision. The playing was wonderful, from the indistinct shimmer of the beginning all the way to the glorious finale, the eight shining horns standing to proclaim victory. Special kudos to bassist Edwin Barker for his spooky solo. The audience may still be there cheering.