James Levine in Tanglewood debut as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, at Tanglewood, July 8, 2005
July 8, 2005 performance, reviewed by Dave Conlin Read
James Levine’s Tanglewood debut as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, July 8, 2005, was a stunning success, his tenure heralded by a majestic performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, (reprising his Symphony Hall opening last October) that was received most enthusiastically by the dressed-up audience in the Shed and by a handful of diehards huddled under trees on the damp lawn after a rainy day.
Dubbed “The Symphony of a Thousand” when Mahler performed it in 1909 in New York with an orchestra of 171 and 858 singers, there were 361 musicians onstage for thiss performance, which was just the 3rd time it has been performed at Tanglewood. In addition to the BSO, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and the American Boychoir, there were 8 soloists, sopranos Susan Neves, Deborah Voigt and Heidi Grant Murphy, mezzo-sopranos Yvonne Naef and Jane Henschel, tenor Johan Botha, baritone Eike Wilm Schulte and bass-baritone John Relyea.
With Mahler’s composition being built around the ninth century Pentacostal hymn Veni, creator spiritus and the final scene from Goethe’s Faust, this was a program that could sanctify the occasion, as well as edify (and entertain) the audience.
Once the orchestra and singers were in place, all dressed in white, Maestro Levine, wearing a tuxedo, entered to a great roar of applause, which he acknowledged with a little kiss-blowing gesture before taking his seat on the podium.
An instant later the organ rang out and the singers sent their call heavenward:
Come, Creator Spirit
visit these Thy souls,
Fill them with heavenly grace
Whom Thou hast created of Thy spirit.
Some twenty-five minutes later an off-stage brass septet blew a brilliant accentuation to the movement-closing “Glory be…” being sung and played in rapturous fashion – and thus, the Tanglewood tenure of James Levine was begun. The second movement, lasting about twice as long as the first, was testament that the opening prayer had been answered. It seemed something whole, rather than a sum of several parts; something of ineffable beauty and complexity that moved this way and that so that it was made apparent in any number of tones and hues to evoke the gamut of emotion.
One scanned the white sea of musicians and singers as the aural locus shifted, even up above the acoustical panels where soprano Heidi Grant Murphy sang the truly high notes. And one always returned to the calm black-clad figure at the center of it all, the seated maestro conducting it all with an absolute minimum of movement.
He used his left hand for little more than to turn the pages of the score and the baton he barely raised above or beyond his shoulder. Except toward the end when he laid aside the baton and used both hands, sometimes with coaxing gestures; and he was most demonstrative, almost in conversation with, first violins Malcom Lowe and Tamara Smirnova during a sublime passage just before the finale.
And so the great inter-regnum has come to a close, nearly four full years since Seiji Ozawa ended his tenure as BSO Music Director on August 4, 2001 with a performance of Richard Strauss’ Salome, Opus 54.