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Stretching exercises (continued)

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Boston Symphony Orchestra's official Web site

THE PAST TWO PROGRAMS were certainly workouts for the orchestra. The three performances of Wagner’s intense, near-three-hour Der fliegende Holländer had to be scheduled with a day of rest between each concert (Friday, Sunday, Tuesday rather than the usual Thursday, Friday, Saturday), and it couldn’t have helped that Deborah Voigt, the star soprano, was ill and everyone else had to work with a last-minute substitute with whom they hadn’t rehearsed. Then Voigt recovered in time for the third concert. That final Holländer was a triumph for her, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Levine, and the orchestra. Elizabeth Byrne, Voigt’s substitute as the haunted Senta, the one figure with imagination in a village imprisoned by convention, was vocally and dramatically undersized and unprepossessing — though everyone has to be grateful to her for allowing the performances to go on. Voigt left Byrne hanging until around 3:30 the afternoon of the last concert; yet that night, Byrne was in the audience cheering along with everyone else.

If Byrne saved the show, Voigt saved the opera. Senta doesn’t sing until the second act, so there was mounting suspense about Voigt’s vocal condition. But the moment she started to sing, she changed the dynamic, joining the impressive Finnish baritone (and flute player) Juha Uusitalo at the molten center of the opera. She was a powerful presence (though she always goes a little blank when she’s not actually singing). She’s not the subtlest actress, but she can sing with affecting quietness when she’s not overpowering you. Her musical security, tonal precision, and rhythmic incisiveness raised the level of the event. She was splendid in Senta’s big second-act ballad. And in the great confrontational duets with the Dutchman, she was a figure of such force and determination, it was surprising anyone could doubt Senta’s commitment. She was obviously being careful — singers shouldn’t treat inflamed vocal cords lightly. But her final blazing high B was precisely the climax this opera needs.

The next week, Levine offered an illuminating juxtaposition of music by Americans, or, in the case of Edgard Varèse, a European who was becoming an American. Each of the pieces was about culture clash. Charles Ives’s early Second Symphony, essentially completed in 1901 but not performed until 50 years later, was the Connecticut composer’s large-scale attempt to fit American themes (hymns, fiddle tunes, patriotic songs, Stephen Foster) into a traditional European symphonic form and style (especially Brahms). Years later, Ives added a shocking and hilarious final dissonant chord. At a rehearsal the press was invited to the day before, Levine had the orchestra play that last chord two different ways — stretched out and cut short. He then asked the players to vote on which they preferred. The overwhelming majority was for the short version, which is what they did at the concert, getting cheers and a big guffaw from the audience. The playing in the Ives was eloquent and touching, swinging from a rare delicacy to rip-roaring cacophony. Cellist Martha Babcock’s two extended solos (one using the opening theme from "America the Beautiful") were heartbreaking and heart-easing — she deserved her solo bow. (In the rehearsal, she was applauded by the other players.)

Amériques, in its first BSO performance, was the first piece Varèse wrote in this country (1926-’27) and the first of his finished pieces still extent. (Only a dozen of his works survive.) It’s a raucous and elegant 24-minute mixture of the primitive and the urban, the spacy and the explosive, sophisticated Paris and uninhibited New York, with its quotes from Le sacre du printemps (opening with Stravinsky’s alto flute and bassoon) and fantastical barrage of percussion, including police siren, sleigh bells, lion’s roar, whip, castanets, tambourine, and two bass drums. You had to be there — no recording or broadcast could reproduce the sound of that ringing hall.

What followed was an even more surprising BSO debut, and the perfect companion piece, George Gershwin’s 1928 tone poem (and Pops favorite) An American in Paris, with its three saxophones and four taxi horns. Levine lavished as much loving attention on it as he did on the kaleidoscopic Amériques. Gershwin’s title innocent abroad seemed to be having a high time as boulevardier, striding down the Champs-Élysées, dodging traffic, falling deliciously in love. I can’t imagine a more buoyant or tender performance in the symphonic style. These players know the blues from a fox trot, and Gershwin’s inspired intersecting tunes have rarely sounded so fresh.

By dropping the scheduled Schoenberg orchestration of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat, Levine didn’t just shorten the program, he tightened the focus. But this complex symbiosis of European high culture and American brashness wasn’t merely a "learning experience" — it was good art at its most various and enjoyable, the likes of which have been rare in this city. That should be front-page news.

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Issue Date: March 25 - 31, 2005
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