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James Levine at the BSO, plus Ben Heppner

Just about a month after being honored at the Kennedy Center Awards by President George W. Bush (who really strikes me as more of an Offenbach sort of guy than a Wagnerian), James Levine arrives next week to conduct the BSO, bearing a nicely eclectic program. The first half is devoted to American music, but probably not the American music that leaps to mind with that phrase. None of Copland’s genial optimism or Bernstein’s exuberant flash here. Instead, two dense, demanding, and little-known works are on the bill: Roger Sessions’s Piano Concerto (with Robert Taub as soloist) and the Third Symphony of John Harbison. Both works feature complex surfaces and some knotty musical syntax. More conventional fare is on tap for the second half of the concert, in the form of Brahms’s First Symphony.

When Levine was announced as the BSO’s 14th music director in October of 2001 (his term begins in 2004), there was general ecstasy: we’d clearly gotten the best guy for the job. We knew he’d carried out a miraculous renaissance at the Metropolitan Opera, that he’d made its orchestra perhaps the best in the country. And we knew that he could accompany singers as few living conductors could. (A glorious 1998 performance of Haydn’s Creation was a good reminder.)

What we didn’t know, perhaps, was how great a part of his musical identity was taken up by contemporary music. His first Boston concert after taking the job left little doubt on the subject. It was a masterful interweaving of the familiar (Dvorák, Mozart, and Schumann) with the very unfamiliar (Charles Wuorinen’s Grand Bamboula and György Ligeti’s Ramifications, both for strings). Like next week’s concert, it read like a statement of principles: expect a large helping of the recent and the unusual along with the tried and true.

Yet to the careful observer, the strength of Levine’s advocacy of the music of the present and recent past has been clear and apparent. It isn’t just in the premieres that have taken place under his baton at the Met — including Harbison’s Great Gatsby, which had its first performances in 1999. It’s most apparent in the series of concerts by the Met Chamber Ensemble at Carnegie Hall that Levine organizes and conducts. Here, it seems, he’s free to perform whatever works he happens to be engaged with at the moment, without regard for audience approval or box-office draw. A recent concert brought together works by Wuorinen, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, and Leon Kirchner. And the skill and assurance with which the Met group played these works suggests that Levine has the ability to convince his players of the music’s worth, the indispensable first step to convincing the public.

All of which leaves open some fascinating questions about his tenure in Boston. Will he involve himself with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, and will his engagement be as intense as it is with the Met group? And how will audiences react if he continues to offer such a steady diet of alien fare? While a fair amount of new music manages, against the odds, to be played around here, the BSO’s audience tends to be more conservative than others. During Levine’s BSO concert last year, the audience coughed so much during the Ligeti that it was almost inaudible.

Even so, Levine’s clear mastery of both the canon and the contemporary may make him the perfect high-profile advocate for new music. At the very least, we can expect some wildly dissimilar composers to be forced into dialogue with one another. Next week’s concerts should be a good barometer of how it will go. Performances are Thursday, January 9 and Saturday, January 11 at eight, and Friday, January 10 at 1:30. Tickets range from $25 to $84. Call (617) 266-1200.

FOLLOW THE LIEDER. Next weekend also puts two of the very greatest song cycles of the 19th century back to back. On Saturday at eight, Ben Heppner brings his robust, operatic tenor to a concert at Jordan Hall that includes Schumann’s Liederkreis, a dozen songs to poems saluting nature’s mysterious powers; Craig Rutenberg accompanies. That’s part of the FleetBoston Celebrity Series, and remaining tickets are $50 and $43; call (617) 482-6661. Sunday’s fare is more earthbound — another chance to hear Schubert’s Winterreise, an icy journey into the far reaches of loneliness and despair. Baritone Randall Scarlata and pianist Jeremy Denk (both veterans of the Marlboro Music Festival) do the honors at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum at 1:30, and tickets, which include museum admission, are $18. Call (866) 468-7619.

Issue Date: January 2 - 9, 2003
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