Levine, BSO set a higher standard
Their many strides have madet hem the center of attention
By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff December 25, 2005
The eyes and ears of the musical world are on the Boston Symphony Orchestra these days. Music director James Levine, like Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco and Esa-Pekka Salonen in Los Angeles, is creating a new model for orchestral programming and for developing an orchestra's relationship with its public. Like his colleagues, Levine is doing this in his own way and acting from the convictions of his own taste.
The BSO is playing better, and more consistently, than it has in years. Levine is not presenting much more contemporary repertoire than Seiji Ozawa did, but he apparently enjoys a more challenging kind of music, and he is programming it in a more systematic way (and in some concerts at exhausting length). A regrettable but not unexpected consequence has been some erosion of the orchestra's traditional subscription base, but the BSO says it is so far making up the difference in single-ticket sales, and some of the single tickets are being sold to an important part of the public that stayed away during the later Ozawa years: students, young people, members of the academic community, and the community of professional musicians (composers, performers, musicologists, and teachers).
It is hard to pick any single Levine program as the most outstanding. The cycle of Brahms symphonies at Tanglewood was superb, but not characteristic; his performances of Mozart and Haydn this season have also been first-rate. Perhaps the second program of his second season represents the Levine era best. In it, the BSO played four American pieces of the most diverse style and character: Ives's ''Three Places in New England," Foss's ''Time Cycle," Gershwin's Piano Concerto (with natty Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the ivories), and the world premiere of Elliott Carter's glistening ''Three Illusions."
It is also important to point out the pathbreaking work Levine is doing at the Tanglewood Music Center. The public performance by the TMC Orchestra of two full acts from Wagner operas, with international soloists, was the climax of nearly 30 hours of rehearsal. An equally illuminating and absorbing process didn't result in a concert: Levine rehearsing (and staging) Act I of Mozart's ''Don Giovanni" with the TMC vocal fellows.
Most of the other top 10 events emerged from strongly competitive fields. Peter Lieberson's lustrous ''Neruda Songs," which received its East Coast premiere with the BSO, represented both a breakthrough for the composer and a triumph for his wife, mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. But an equally strong case could be made for Yehudi Wyner's piano concerto ''Chiavi in mano," premiered by Robert Levin and Robert Spano; Michael Gandolfi's ''Impressions From 'The Garden of Cosmic Speculation,' " with conductor David Zinman; and John Harbison's ''Darkbloom: Overture for an Imagined Opera," a world premiere conducted by Levine, all with the BSO. Or for the late master Donald Martino's Fifth String Quartet (premiered by the Lydian Quartet) and Concertino for Clarinet (premiered by Ian Greitzer and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose). The new-music collective Alarm Will Sound made an electrifying impression in its local debut, an all-John Adams program at the Gardner Museum.
Opera was also a hotly contested area. Paradoxically, the strongest entries this season came from outside the city's two principal resident opera companies. Boston Baroque's compelling and witty semi-staged performance of Handel's ''Agrippina" was the clear winner, directed by Sam Helfrich, who also staged a worthy runner-up, Berkshire Opera's ''L'Elisird'Amore." Matheson's ''Boris Goudenow" was the best staging of an unknown Baroque opera that the Boston Early Music Festival has offered to date, and the piece was a major discovery. Stage director Sharon Daniels managed to make Mozart's early ''La finta giardinera" a throughly entertaining experience at Boston University. To his debut as a stage director with Philip Glass's ''Akhnaten" at the Boston Conservatory, baritone Sanford Syvan brought the same original and illuminating intelligence that has distinguished his singing. Teatro Lirico d'Europa offered a well-sung production of Rossini's ''The Barber of Seville" that for once was as funny as the piece is supposed to be.
Harbison brought the benefit of lifelong study and a composer's instincts to interpreting Bach's ''St. John" Passion with the Cantata Singers. But special salutes should go to Emmanuel Music for its concert performance of Schumann's ''Genoveva" and to the Back Bay Chorale for Schumann's ''Das Paradies und die Peri."
There is chamber music almost every night of the week in this city. The relationship that the Borromeo Quartet has built with the public at the Gardner Museum is special, and so is its continuing survey of the string quartets by Schoenberg. The collaboration between violist Kim Kashkashian and pianist Robert Levin is celebrated in Europe; we heard it in the Harvard Epworth Church in Cambridge. The 50th-anniversary concert by the Beaux Arts Trio at Tanglewood, with founding pianist Menahem Pressler still in place, was a moving experience.
Among the many worthy pianists of the season, Idil Biret shone for her virtuosity and the variety in her demanding program for the Piano Masters Series at Boston Conservatory. Michael Endres made an exciting debut at the Newport Festival, exceeding the promise of his admirable recordings, and New England Conservatory's Gabriel Chodos brought the Jordan Hall audience to its feet following Beethoven's ''Hammerklavier" Sonata.
A production of Vaughan Williams's opera ''The Pilgrim's Progress," based on the famous allegory by John Bunyan, involved more than 150 members of the Community of Jesus in Orleans, who spent more than a year preparing the production under the inspired musical supervision of Elizabeth Patterson.
Finally, nothing all season was as much fun as an evening at the Somerville Theatre with the two anarchic musicians of Polygraph Lounge, Rob Schwimmer and Mark Stewart. These guys know 250 years of music cold and make amazing and amusing connections among its disparate strands. Where else would you hear a reference to ''Ornette Funicello"?