Old and new

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  October 16, 2008

Christophers is the founder of the popular vocal and period-instrument ensemble the Sixteen. He’s a lively presence, physically uninhibited yet rhythmically precise. (From my balcony seat near the proscenium I could see even his eyebrows conducting.) The articulation of the H&H chorus was especially impressive, and the orchestra played with forthrightness and power, with outstanding work in the more public pieces by timpanist John Grimes and the three trumpeters, Bruce Hall, Jesse Levine, and Paul Perfetti, plus some seductive flute playing by Christopher Krueger. Canadian soprano Gillian Keith has a pretty if not notably distinctive voice, but she caught the pre-tragic naïveté of Iphis and the ingénue in Jephtha, and, wittily twirling her lavender sash, she nailed the coloratura in Semele’s self-congratulatory “Endless pleasure” and “Myself I shall adore.”

Next year marks the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death and the 200th of Haydn’s, so Christophers is promising a season devoted to H&H’s namesakes. No objection from this corner.

Something old, something new . . . The clerestory lunette windows at Symphony Hall were boarded up in the early 1940s (probably for wartime blackouts). But the boards are now gone, and natural light comes pouring into the auditorium the way it was intended to. The color is warmest at twilight, when the sky is deep cerulean. I thought I was imagining that the sound too seemed brighter, but other good listeners have mentioned this as well. No doubt every surface of the hall, which includes the clothed and unclothed statues (now better lit), contributes to the phenomenal acoustics.

So guest conductor André Previn’s concert sounded good even though it wasn’t very exciting. Owls, his new BSO commission, is a sentimental little tone poem inspired by Previn’s rescue of two baby owls. Its most charming passages are for pairs of woodwinds, but it drowns in the thick soup of Hollywood strings. Too much of it sounds like Copland and Britten, with a little Mahler and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (another BSO commission). Previn doesn’t have the most incisive beat, so timpanist Timothy Genis was crucial to the momentum of the Beethoven Fourth Symphony and violinist Gil Shaham to the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, though Shaham’s rich tone isn’t ideal for Stravinsky’s sinewy leanness.

Excitement was in the air last Friday even before the concert started. James Levine was conducting his first Mahler Sixth Symphony at Symphony Hall. (He last led it with the BSO in 1972, at his first Tanglewood concert.) That excitement never abated. He allowed the long opening Allegro energico to morph from ferocious march into church chorale and youthfully impassioned love song (Alma Mahler considered this her theme) with a rhythmic underpinning that turned all the disparate parts into an emotional juggernaut. The otherworldly Andante, with John Ferrillo’s poignant oboe, was an oasis of repose, a vision of paradise that balanced the first movement’s ongoing battles for life and love (worldly and spiritual). The Scherzo, a kind of sinister parody of the first movement, yanked us back into the real world, caroming between nasty, shivery shrieking and the delicate, almost comic nostalgia of a “grandfatherly” minuet. In the Finale, heroism (nine raised horns!) and mysterious visions (harp glissandi, off-stage cowbells, celesta) were, with victory in sight, crushed by three (though Mahler deleted the last one) hammer blows, in the form of a giant croquet mallet. The playing was thrilling (though with a few glitches, like a not quite unison pizzicato at the very end). Maybe not the most understated performance of Mahler’s “Tragic” Symphony, but overpowering.

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