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Classical Music | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

How sound is the symphony?

As the West Coast basks in glorious harmony, there's uncertainty in the East. But don't blame the players -- it's management that's producing sour notes.

January 30, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Well, the Boston Symphony mastered "Concerti for Orchestra" exceptionally well, and so did the audience, which gave the composer a warm, enthusiastic standing ovation and then mobbed him after the concert. The score is plenty complex and a sheer delight, full of gossamer chamber-music-like textures, flowing lines, delicate colors. Say the word "complexity" and American symphony audiences supposedly run the other way. But the human body is complex, and who doesn't love to caress a beautiful body? And Levine didn't just perform this music, he caressed its intricate contours and shared the results.

Ozawa did not leave the Boston Symphony as good an orchestra as he found it. By the end of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony, the horns were clearly tired. But for the most part, Levine coaxed playing of gripping vigor and strength made all the more satisfying by the ingratiating acoustics of Symphony Hall.

Everything, moreover, clicked. The Boston Symphony is a gracious host to its audiences. Program notes are more detailed and useful than in New York or Philadelphia. Coffee in the lobby is good and not overpriced. The preconcert event, which was very well attended and which offered great conversation -- Babbitt happens to be hilariously funny -- was too short at an hour.

Boston is still enjoying its honeymoon with Levine. Naysayers insist that his penchant for programming difficult music could alienate core crowds. Then again, if he continues to do it as well as he did with the glorious Babbitt premiere, he may win more, not fewer, fans.

Issues of Levine's health are ever mentioned. If he's suffering from something worse than the mysterious Parkinson-like symptoms this famously private conductor insists are under control, he's not saying. He now conducts seated. But no one without the full capacity to communicate the most subtle nuances to an orchestra could have achieved the results he did at this concert.

The Boston Symphony, quite simply, shows that what is happening on the West Coast is not a fluke. Under Ozawa the orchestra had become irrelevant. Now it's not.

By taking the approach that music matters -- that a concert is not preschool, not a bitter pill, not a duty, not an escape, not a course in self-improvement, not social frippery -- Levine means his programs to engage audiences on a meaningful level. I doubt that the Boston audiences are smarter or more sophisticated than those in New York or Philadelphia. They are simply taken more seriously.

Orchestras are not the problem. They're fine. It's how they are run that makes the difference.

Mark Swed is The Times' music critic. He can be contacted at

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