IN: Reviews

Proud to be a Bostonian: Savoring BSO’s Levine with Mahler


Gustav Mahler is alive and well in Boston this week, thanks to the much-anticipated return of Music Director James Levine to his splendid corps of Boston Symphony Orchestra musicians at Symphony Hall for the opening night performance of the subscription season on October 7. The Mahler Symphony No. 2 received a committed, brilliant reading by a conductor who knows this music inside out and goes for the long line, still allowing his listeners time to savor the drama and glorious subtleties both of the contemplative and triumphant moments.

Mahler had a love/hate relationship with “programs” for his music, and Symphony No. 2 is complicated and inscrutable enough to make one wonder if he felt it necessary to give his perplexed listeners at least a stepping-off point for understanding its contradictions and complexities.

Levine’s pacing made splendid sense of the music, in many ways reminding this listener of George Szell. (I have never forgotten Szell’s Mahler Fourth Symphony for its perfect blend of give and take while never sacrificing the long shape of the work.) Levine brings a bit less taut control to these complex Mahler works, retaining the long line, but happily sniffing a few more roses along the path. Mahler can be torn apart by a conductor obsessed with one phrase or another, but Levine knew just where to hold back and where to let things go forward, and the BSO has never sounded better in its splendid and world-famous Symphony Hall. At moments such as these one feels proud to be a Bostonian. Hushed dynamics both from the orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus all seemed legitimately about “affect,” not “effect,” and that hush extended to the audience as we listened, rapt, to this heavenly music.

Singing from memory as is their custom, the Chorus could not have murmured their softest pianissimo more convincingly, nor could the triumphant last phrases have been more lofty and full of grandeur.

Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill brought just the right blend of mystery and quietude to “Urlicht,” and Layla Claire gave a convincing account of her few moments of singing. The woodwinds, especially in the second movement, were ravishing and transparent. The brass, after a few hesitant moments in the first movement, moved on to luminous playing at all dynamics in tone and phrase, especially in the quiet chorale of the final movement. Throughout, Levine appeared to be savoring every moment, calling forth so much from these wondrous colleagues.

E-flat major has never sounded so eloquent and moving as in the final section of this symphony, with the chorus, soloists and orchestra, so deeply under-girded with strong foundations of the organ, when the eternal call to us mortals is proclaimed: “Rise again, yes, you will rise again, my heart in the twinkling of an eye!” Who could fail to be moved by this music and this performance, in this place on such an evening?

An optimistic, heartfelt sense of gratitude for the return of Maestro Levine was palpable on this occasion, as it was the previous Saturday evening when he led a magnificent program of Wagner. With his return, let us hope that we have before us a number of years of important and significant musical experiences which we may anticipate with confidence and joy.

Brian Jones is Emeritus Director of Music and Organist at Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston, where he directed an acclaimed program from 1984-2004. He is active as an organ solo artist and guest conductor, and has performed widely in the United States, Canada, England, Mexico, and Bermuda. He is Director of the Copley Singers, a Boston-based chorus, and his work with the Trinity Choir may be heard on the London-Polygram, Dorian and Gothic labels.


16 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. On October 7 BSO(Mr. Jones said above) presented a “committed, brilliant reading by a conductor” and “glorious subtleties … of drama”. Today, on October 9, BSO showed the Saturday’s version of Resurrection wich was so tedious that the only “entertainment” I had was to feed my masochism, experiencing pity for the lost time and money. Pretty much everything before the last movement was not music playing but tiresome notes rendering. In the end BSO got some excitement, partially because it is imposable to be indifferent with Tanglewood chorus (which was great as usually) and partially because BSO were about to go home. Brian, you asked “Who could fail to be moved by this music and this performance, in this place on such an evening?” Which evening? My evening not Thursday but Saturday and according to WCRB “they all just redundant duplicated performances”…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — October 9, 2010 at 11:38 pm

  2. It was a glorious performance! Such experiences are beyond price.

    Comment by Sam Jack — October 10, 2010 at 5:50 am

  3. I too attended Saturday’s performance, and my experience could not differ more than the previous commenter’s. The performance wasn’t flawless, but the first movement was wild and dramatic, the second a stately waltz pierced by folk melodies, the Urlicht was refined and beautiful. The last movement was everything it should have been.

    Comment by Mark — October 10, 2010 at 11:23 am

  4. The concert on October 7 did not allay my fears. If Maestro Levine can continue conducting as he did last night, all is okay.

    But judging from a brief video of Opening Night on the Globe website, there has been a bit of deterioration. On Opening Night he was in white tie and walked without a cane. On the 7th, he was in a casual black shirt (untucked) and walked with a cane.

    At the end, for the second curtain call, he did not even walk all the way to the podium, but stopped at the third desk of second violins and bowed from behind the violinists. During the symphony, although he seemed to have a full range of arm motion, he often grasped his upper right arm with his left hand, as he had done during his brief return last winter. Also, several times he leaned on the podium, as if for support. His batons had bulbous ends — larger than I have ever seen, as if he had some difficulty grasping a normal baton, and the presence on the podium of a second baton suggested a fear that even with the bulbous end, he might not be able to hold it.

    So if he is at a plateau which he can maintain indefinitely (or better still, improve on), that’s fine, but given the differences between Oct. 2 and 7, and between last winter and now, I’m still worried.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 10, 2010 at 2:04 pm

  5. On the 9th, Levine used a cane, but as he left after his second curtain call, he tossed the cane over his shoulder, eliciting some chuckles from the crowd. He seemed less certain on his feet that I had hoped, but his conducting seemed as precise as ever.

    Comment by Mark — October 10, 2010 at 2:20 pm

  6. Yes, on Saturday he walked with a cane and I have to note that even with cane he walked very vulnerably. When the door was opened and Levine begun his perambulation I was cheering Levine but I was subconsciousnessly praying for him to reach his chair with no accidents. As Levine did find himself on his chair and assumed command he looked fine. I did not listen the broadcast yet but I am sure that Levine’s walk was a perfect remedy against Ron Della Chiesa re-employ his favorite phrase “brisk walk”…. :-)

    Yes, for sure James Levine will not run Boston Marathon. Let face it -he was not so great walker years back. After all, not for the walking style we appreciate the maestro. The subject of Levine’s health s a frequent subject among all NE concert goers. I would like to reveal a super secretive secret “that no one knows” – it will be worse. This is what that comes with life. It will be worse with Levine, with me, with you – it is what it is. The key however what we do with our health while we still can walk and to do things. From this perspective the return stunt that James Levine demonstrated with Saturday double performance was a great testimonial from the willful artist. Behind the BSO boring play (in my view) of the Mahler Second there was a good moment at this evening. In the middle of Urlicht, when BSO played with expressionism of a western person who speaks a first day on Asian language, I got sick and tired from listening it and begin to think about something else. I was thinking that for 25 years I was involved into a business that demanded my work on Saturdays. I was thinking about all those people who were working at the very time when I was trying to enjoy myself. It was Saturday 9PM and thousands or caps, firemen, restaurant workers, drivers, medical workers and God knows who else were working at the very time. Among all working people there was one whom presence at his job was very special – it was James Levine. Better or worse but it was Saturday evening and “Jimmy” was in his podium – as today, it was all that counted. Thank God we do not have the alternative and foreign teenagers do not made BSO to play boulevard pop-songs…

    Still, I have no idea why BSO was in such anticlimactic and unmotivated mode. BSO sounded like a furniture moving team that brutally underpaid and never tipped. The poster above suggested that first movement was “wild and dramatic”. Well, when my 20-year old Cat leisurely rolls over from one sunny spot in room to another then I also call it dramatic…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — October 10, 2010 at 5:58 pm

  7. I was there for Thursday’s performance. The tempos and pacing were exactly right and the quality of playing, balance, overall sound etc. are at an all-time high. Of all the live Mahler 2nd’s I’ve heard, only one other was as great as this, and that was Abbado’s with the BSO — in the 1970’s? That long ago?

    The sound and overall quality of the BSO back then were not what they are now, so if I had recordings of both performances to compare, it would be easier to decide which was better. However, for me the Abbado was more satisfactory. That performance had a sense of ritual about it, such that at some point early in the last movement it crossed a line and became a religious experience.

    Levine’s performance stayed rooted in the secular realm, at least for me, but this may be because of several distractions that others in the hall may have escaped. The cell phone in the first movement was not too bad; harmonically it fit with the music on stage so it was reminiscent of the flute that plays without regard to the tempo in the First Symphony. Somebody behind me had a breathing problem that made his or her breathing sound curiously like a crying baby being smothered with a pillow. (I initially thought it was a cellphone with an exceptionally distasteful ringtone.) And I still don’t know what was going on in the wheelchair row; I just kept telling myself “it’s being handled by people who know how to handle these things; stop thinking about it.”

    Comment by Mark Lutton — October 10, 2010 at 9:56 pm

  8. Again, I don’t know what happened on Saturday, but I agree with Mr. Lutton that Thursday’s performance was exceptional. I think I would be exhausted by Levine’s schedule on Saturday and I fortunately don’t have the same sort of health problems. Almost 4 hours of intense performance, on the same day, in two different states?

    Levine needs to do himself a favor and quit one of his two jobs. Of course I hope he chooses to stay with the BSO and close the book on the Levine era at the Met.

    Comment by Sam Jack — October 11, 2010 at 12:41 am

  9. I agree with Mr. Lutton – at times is seems a trifle troubling that our beloved Symphony Hall is bring overrun by people with all kinds of problems and assorted afflictions, not to mention conditions of poverty and cultural deprivation. In fact, I was thinking the exact same as he whilst on my drive to the liquor store in Malden the other night only to find, to my dismay, that it had closed three hours earlier at 11 pm.

    Comment by Lovey Howell — October 12, 2010 at 12:57 am

  10. I agree with Mr. Lutton – at times is seems a trifle troubling that our beloved Symphony Hall is bring overrun by people with all kinds of problems and assorted afflictions, not to mention conditions of poverty and cultural deprivation. In fact, I was thinking the exact same as he whilst on my drive to the liquor store in Malden the other night only to find, to my dismay, that it had closed three hours earlier at 11 pm.
    I might beat the pig to death and probably have annoyed people with the subject but I still would like to remind that if the behavior of some Morons in Symphony Hall annoy you (as it annoys me) then listening live broadcasts over FM radio is a wonderful alternative (if broadcasts are properly handled). In addition to having a proper orchestral mix (that is very hard to get at many sits in Symphony Hall) and canceling out all trios people with their odd behavior you have in addition a perfect condoled environment of your home, – if you wish you can dress in suite to listen a live BSO broadcast. I just wish the BSO, WCRB and more people out there understand the huge value of live broadcasts. Above reported a good play of M2 by BSO on Thursday took place once, never was broadcasted and presumably never will be published, it mean that it lost for history. If Thursday concert (why not the open rehearsal as well) were aired then it would become a part of the classical community awareness. Considering that it costs absolutely nothing to air BSO live it is only God knows what in the feeble minds of the WCRB fieldmarshals. Yep, the “duplicated performances” of my tail! I guess the WCRB was busy on Thursday to play 43902nd polka of Johann Strauss….

    Comment by Romy The Cat — October 12, 2010 at 8:58 am

  11. A propos distractions in Symphony Hall —
    1. They’re nothing compared to the call from my brother in Tokyo at 9:00 p.m. every Saturday evening when I’m at home, which is why I wish I could hear Friday afternoon concerts as a reprise of Thursday evening.
    2. Thursday evening’s concert was one of the few I’ve attended during which the coughing didn’t start as soon as the music became slow and quiet. This only happens when the audience is captivated.
    3. We probably don’t realize how much we can distract others, and it’s difficult to judge when consideration for others means we should stay home. Certainly no one plans to have a medical emergency (like the gentleman in the wheelchair row on Thursday). It’s good to know that doctors and EMT’s are summoned and that management does all in its power to prevent our dying in Symphony Hall — although there are many worse locations from which to depart this vale of tears. But if I think I may cough once during a performance (and if I feel a cough coming on, I try to hold out for a loud passage and avoid vocalizing it), must I stay home? After all, if everybody coughs only once during the music, the evening is ruined for all of us.
    4. Try not to look.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 12, 2010 at 12:03 pm

  12. In re: crowd noise, I understand that with several hundred people in a room perfect silence isn’t to be expected. It’s just my feeling that, between movements, if there is going to be a minute or two of shifting, coughing, and muttering, there might as well be applause to cover it up.

    Comment by Sam Jack — October 13, 2010 at 11:36 am

  13. And probably if those people In Symphony Hall bars would serve not cold drinks but hot tea before concerts then it would be less coughing during the concerts… I have to note however that on Saturday there was no noises between Urlicht and Scherzos – a “big” accomplishment. Even the fat women next to me who insisted to unwrap candies during entire concert (thanks God) did not feel particularly hungry at beginning of Scherzos. Isn’t it the evidence that God does exist?

    Comment by Romy The Cat — October 13, 2010 at 1:25 pm

  14. Once again, I have to agree. I was thinking whilst I was getting off the bus back from Foxwoods behind Denny’s in Brockton last Monday morning at 3am that just too many of the wrong kind of people are fancying themselves as sophisticated concert-goers these days.

    Comment by Lovey Howell — October 13, 2010 at 6:24 pm

  15. I also attended Thursday night’s Mahler 2. I loved it, though a bit underwhelmed by the two singers.

    I just had to return on Tuesday night for the last performance.
    The Orchestra was ON FIRE!

    I closed my eyes and reveled in the sound they and Jimmy produced and the sound in our wonderful Hall. I cannot imagine a more impassioned performance by my orchestra, and yet with Maestro Levine at the helm, there was a transluscency so I could hear all the layers of the harmonies, and the space in between the notes and phrases, which made it possible to savor the harmonies and notes even more. The beginning of the second movement always plays right to me, and our wonderful cellos were rightthere with that warm and rich tone. The young German high school student sitting next to me was a jazz saxaphone player, here touring with his school’s jazz band. He was in heaven, too. On the other hand, his friend announced, it just wasn’t his kind of music—I had no words to parry that and wished him a good time on the rest of his visit and a safe journey home.

    Comment by Leslie Miller — October 15, 2010 at 8:08 am

  16. On the other hand—–

    I do worry about Jimmy, and want him to take care of himself so he can bring us more music, here and at the MET.
    But I’ll take him on his terms, if that’s the only way I can hear him with my orchestra. He has taught me a lot and made me listen to music which I would often not choose to hear.

    I feel, one important job of orchestras, chamber groups, museums, , is to teach us about ALL forms of art, not just review the past, though …

    I must say, that some conductors, like Jimmy and Colin Davis, and Haitnick, play old favorites and it is like I am hearing them as a new piece of music.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Leslie Miller — October 15, 2010 at 8:14 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.