The following week, Levine was back with more Mahler (the five-movement Fifth, also his first with the BSO) and the first installment of his six-part retrospective of John Harbison's symphonies (the now 20-year-old five-movement No. 3 — the series ends next year with the premiere of Harbison's Sixth, a BSO commission).

The Mahler Fifth, though it also begins with a lengthy funeral march (which turns into a kind of death tango), is more outgoing than the Second, but the same virtues were in evidence, with passages that had plenty of air around them, giving each new episode its due, and some magnificent playing (here especially by Thomas Rolfs, that most musical trumpeter, and James Sommerville on horn). Some rougher moments added to the sense of exuberance. What didn't work, to my surprise, was the famous Adagietto (Visconti's theme music for Death in Venice), for strings and harp. Levine's middle ground had neither momentum nor sublime stasis — it was pretty but damagingly neutral.

The Harbison could be nicknamed "Five Temperaments" — it began with a repeated downward groan that seemed a new take on the "Melancholy" movement of Paul Hindemith's TheFour Temperaments. Each movement — "Sconsolato" ("disconsolate"), "Nostalgico," "Militante," "Appassionato," and "Esuberante" — has a different mood; they're disconnected by pauses written into the score yet connected thematically. I only wish Harbison, an inspired tunesmith, had given the "passionate" movement a more memorable lyric theme. Levine, who's done the symphony before (and recorded it with the Munich Philharmonic), led it with gusto, and both piece and composer got an enthusiastic hand.

Some great chamber music is always on tap when the Celebrity Series of Boston brings the Mark Morris Dance Group to town. MMDG's latest visit had three dances new to Boston, with three rarely heard pieces of music: Samuel Barber's early, bluesy-folksy, Copland-esque piano suite Excursions, elegantly played by pianist/NYU professor Colin Fowler; Heitor Villa-Lobos's lush, Debussyan String Quartet No. 2, musically tepid but smoothly played by Georgy Valtchev, Omar Chen-Guey, Philip Kramp, and Andrew Janss (in his post-concert Q&A, Morris dared anyone in the audience to admit having heard it before — one person did); and Charles Ives's great Piano Trio (for Morris's phantasmagorical Empire Garden), which, running the gamut of musical quotations, from "Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay" to "Rock of Ages," was magnificently rendered by Fowler, Valtchev, and Janss (the concluding "Rock of Ages" especially rich and moving on Janss's cello). The Villa-Lobos was the music for Morris's brand new Petrichor ("the scent of rain on dry earth"), which the Celebrity Series commissioned to honor the 25th anniversary of its beloved president, Martha H. Jones, who's retiring after this season.

Carole Friedman, executive director of Boston Baroque for 20 years, is also retiring, and Martin Pearlman opened the season by dedicating the concert to her, beginning with a lightweight Mozart Symphony No. 33 and then countering that with the closing Beethoven Symphony No. 7, which was exhilarating, beautifully played (Christopher Krueger, flute; Marc Schachman, oboe), grippingly paced, and rhythmically incisive (John Grimes, timpani) — maybe the freshest, most convincing period-instrument Beethoven I've heard. (The next day Courtney Lewis led his Discovery Ensemble in an electrifying Eroica — more about that next week.) The two symphonies bookended the heroic-voiced soprano Barbara Quintiliani, who was stunning in Beethoven's challenging dramatic concert scene "Ah! perfido" but compromised her strong performance as Cherubini's Medea in two powerful arias on a similar theme of betrayal (in their rarely heard original French versions) by depending too much on the score — would someone in the grip of vengeance, and about to murder her own children, be turning pages? Still, I'm more eager than ever to hear her next May in Donizetti's Maria Padilla, with Opera Boston.

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Related: James Levine: He's back!, The Top 10 Classical Music Stories of 2010, Fall Classical Preview: The power of music, More more >
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