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BSO debuts with flair under Gatti

In the cover photograph on the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 2004-05 program book, the new music director, James Levine, stands front and center, arms flung wide, baton shimmering like a light saber. Because of prior commitments, Levine did not conduct the opening concert of the orchestra's 124th season last night, but the charismatic Italian conductor Daniele Gatti was on hand to fill in handsomely, and the orchestra delivered the goods for him.

There were patches of empty seats, probably because Mozart and Mahler were in conflict with President Bush and Senator Kerry, but there was a tumultuous standing ovation at the end.

Gatti is energetic and focused but not particularly flamboyant to look at. The music-making, however, is all drama, all edge. Gatti has attitude, but backs it up with fresh, intelligent ideas, and Mahler's mighty Fifth Symphony became a cliffhanger again.

This was Mahler without bloat; it was as clear in outline as an etching or a knife

blade. The conductor favors brisk tempos, and under his direction the orchestra hurls the emotional stresses of the music at the audience. Episodes in the opening Funeral March unleashed hysterical, heaving grief. After this and the dramatic ferocity of the second movement, the rest of the symphony came as a relief. There was an extraordinary amount of subtle rubato, balancing of lines and textures, and rhythmic pointing in Scherzo; the result was dappled sunshine. To the famous Adagietto, Gatti brought forward momentum, achieving blissful serenity through dynamic control, harmonic movement, and vocal shaping of the melodic line. The finale, which sometimes sounds insistently bombastic, was marked by logic, clarity, and inevitability.

Trumpeter Charles Schlueter and principal horn James Sommerville earned solo bows for playing fearlessly, if not tirelessly. The orchestra operated without inhibition across the whole dynamic, coloristic, and emotional range. Elizabeth Rowe, the new principal flute in her debut concert, did not have a lot of exposed playing, but her personal sound attracted the ear.

Gatti began with Mozart's Symphony No. 40, K. 550, in G-Minor -- the key of his greatest tragic operatic aria (for Pamina, in "The Magic Flute"). Anyone expecting to escape into a world of perfect order and grace would have been startled by this extraordinary performance by Gatti and 45 BSO musicians. The edges, angles, and intensities of Gatti's interpretation suggested that Mozart would have understood our world as perfectly as he understood his own.

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