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Boston Symphony makes move toward greatness with release of CDs

| Sunday, Nov. 11, 2001

The Boston Symphony has come charging back this fall.

Naming James Levine its next music director creates the hope that it will regain its former eminence. And its new set of concert CDs makes those past glories come alive again.

Levine, 58, is artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera, where he made his debut in 1972. He was named music director of the Met in 1976, and assumed his current post 10 years later.

The American conductor transformed the Met, and built its orchestra into one of the finest in the world. In fact, the concert series he began with the Met orchestra at Carnegie Hall is one of the hottest tickets in New York City.

Although Boston will be Levine's first major orchestra post, an operatic background is traditionally the best path to symphonic conducting. He has worked extensively with the Chicago Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra and often conducts the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics.

Levine's five-year Boston contract calls for 12 weeks of subscription concerts per season, plus three weeks at the Tanglewood Music Festival. His most difficult demand during negotiations was more flexibility in rehearsal schedule. He got what he wanted.

He'll continue to lead the Met for 23 weeks a season, conducting a minimum of 50 performances, at least through 2007. In 2005, he will step back to music director to reduce his administrative load at Lincoln Center.

Levine's appointment completes the search for new music directors by four of America's top orchestras. He'll work in the most acoustically beautiful hall in the United States with an orchestra of great musicians eager to fulfill their potential after the dreary, lengthy tenure of Seiji Ozawa.


The Boston Symphony was founded in 1881 and quickly became the country's finest symphonic ensemble. When the Pittsburgh Orchestra was established in 1896, its advertisements proudly stated that its roster included Boston Symphony musicians. As late as 1961, Pittsburgh Symphony music director William Steinberg brought in Boston Symphony assistant principal French horn Charles Yancich as a ringer for a recording of Johannes Brahms' Second Symphony.

The Boston Symphony's new 12-CD set documents great music-making in Symphony Hall dating back to 1943, when Serge Koussevitzky was music director.

The first CD features Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra conducted by Koussevitzky, who commissioned it. The performance from a month after the world premiere is highly evocative, even romantic at times, and amazingly well played for such challenging new music. In fact, it is decisively superior to the first commercial recording made by Fritz Reiner and the Pittsburgh Symphony a few months later.

Koussevitzky also conducts the world premiere of Leonard Bernstein's Second Symphony, "The Age of Anxiety," with the composer as piano soloist. This, too, is an essential performance to hear, especially for Bernstein's pianistic excellence.

The Russian conductor, who was music director from 1924-49, was an ardent advocate for new music despite not being fluent in learning new scores. Evidently, Nicholas Slominsky played new scores at the piano for Koussevitzky until he had them in his ear. In addition, concertmaster and assistant conductor Richard Burgin often prepared the orchestra in preliminary rehearsals for the music director.

Fortunately, the compilers of this set included a Burgin performance from 1962 of Igor Stravinsky's Divertimento from his ballet "Le Baiser de la fee" (The Fairy's Kiss), a tribute to Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Burgin, who served the Boston Symphony from 1920-1962, was a defining personality for the orchestra. He studied violin with Joseph Joachim, the great Hungarian-German violinist, and Leopold Auer, the Russian teacher of Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein. No wonder the Boston Symphony was so stylistically versatile.

Burgin's Stravinsky sings with a warm lyricism but also is fiercely dynamic. It is one of the most enjoyable performances in the set.

Each of the orchestra's music directors is represented by one CD of performances, except for Ozawa, who has two discs.

Pierre Monteux, who preceded Koussevitzky, often returned as a guest in the 1950s. Monteux is most famous for conducting the riotous world premiere of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring." His best commercial recording of it was made with the Boston Symphony in 1950.

But Monteux was a versatile musician. His performance of Richard Strauss' "Don Quixote" is a staggering achievement. Monteux's personality and drive have never been surpassed, and principal cellist Samuel Mayes matches the conductor's fantasy and eloquence.

Many of the most exciting performances in the set are led by Charles Munch, who led Boston from 1949-62. He was a wild conductor who hated rehearsals and did not maintain discipline. But when he was on, the results were unforgettable.

Cesar Franck's symphonic poem "The Accursed Horseman" is demonic in intensity. It is, like the concert performances of Claude Debussy's "La Mer" and Maurice Ravel's "La Valse," far superior to the excellent commercial recordings made for RCA Victor.

For three seasons, 1969-72, the Pittsburgh Symphony's music director, William Steinberg, also was music director in Boston. The new set adds an important piece to Steinberg's recorded legacy in Anton Bruckner's 8th Symphony. The performance makes full use of the orchestra's excellence, and the start of the slow movement is an encounter with spirituality of the highest order.

Several discs are devoted to performances by important guest conductors, such as Guido Cantelli, Leopold Stokowski, Bruno Walter, Colin Davis and Bernard Haitink.

The pleasure of these performances emerges in superb sound. Both timbre and dynamic range are impressive, even in the earliest performances.

The Boston set shows that the center of gravity in recording American orchestras has shifted to the orchestras themselves. The annotations hint broadly that additional sets will be released. Success deserves a sequel.

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