Variety show

James Levine at the BSO, Ewa Podles, Gunther Schuller’s jazz, Ben Zander’s Elgar, Russell Sherman’s Mozart, Opera Boston’s Chabrier, Boston Baroque’s Purcell  
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  March 8, 2006

L'ÉTOILE: A shame that Chabrier's rare little star had so little twinkle.James Levine completed his second season as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director with another riveting though not-quite polished evening of Schoenberg and Beethoven. It was a rare Wednesday concert, but even with Beethoven’s Ninth on the program, surely the world’s most popular piece of symphonic music, attendance was sparse. The BSO has been doing everything possible to diminish the public’s antipathy to the forbidding modern master. An engaging multimedia traveling exhibit from Vienna’s Arnold Schoenberg Center filled the Cabot-Cahners Room. There were presentations and panel discussions at the Goethe Institut and Harvard. (Levine attended the former and spoke at the latter.) And the BSO has played some of Schoenberg’s most engaging works. But it’s hard to overcome prejudice — even musical.

And then, as luck would have it, Levine’s front-page headlines were once again non-musical: a bellywhopper he took a couple of feet from the podium as he was heading offstage during the standing ovation for the Beethoven Ninth. The first repercussion was minor: he cancelled a press conference announcing the 2006-’07 season. Then he cancelled the weekend’s remaining Boston concerts, and then his entire BSO tour to New York, Chicago, Newark, Philadelphia, and Washington — his first tour with the BSO. (Marek Janowski and David Robertson will fill in.) From my seat in the first balcony, I couldn’t tell whether he’d tripped or whether his leg had just buckled. (Maybe it fell asleep from his half-sitting position on his tall podium chair.) The audience gasped, but he got up, brushed himself off, walked off, and returned — a little shaken — to acknowledge the resumed rapturous applause. He suffered no broken bones but evidently hurt his shoulder. We all hope for a full and speedy recovery.

Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 (1906), performed in the composer’s expanded version for full orchestra (1935), changes the nature of the symphony by condensing and reorganizing the traditional elements — four movements; statements, developments, and recapitulations of themes — into a single continuous movement; it’s the opposite side of the symphonic coin to Beethoven’s Ninth. Schoenberg’s slow “movement” is one of his most bewitching passages — anyone who didn’t know it was by Schoenberg would surely find its overlapping melodies and Mahlerian transparency irresistible. The entire piece builds to an extended and exciting coda, which the orchestra played broadly but to the hilt.

A day of rehearsing the Beethoven and playing it that evening took its toll on precision and delicacy, especially in the first movement. The performance was bracingly fast yet didn’t feel rushed (as did Levine’s Beethoven Seventh a few weeks earlier), except in the almost comically speeded-up “Prestissimo” just before the very last notes. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus was the symphony’s fervent soul. Two of the four soloists were superb: soprano Christine Brewer (returning to the scene of her last-minute rescue of the Beethoven Missa solemnis in January) and German bass Albert Dohmen (who had ignited the small role of the Peasant in the previous week’s Schoenberg Gurrelieder). American mezzo Jill Grove (a disappointing replacement for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in the Missa solemnis) disappeared into the woodwork, and Clifton Forbis struggled valiantly but without much effect in the high lying tenor role.

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