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In tour of 20th century, BSO sounds superb

Vincenzo Natale, the Neapolitan driver for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was standing on the corner outside Symphony Hall before Thursday night's concert assuring passersby, "The maestro is going to shake Symphony Hall tonight."

The maestro -- James Levine -- did exactly that in a program of four works by dominant composers of the 20th century, with the necessary assistance, of course, of members of the BSO, back in town after their New York triumph with Berlioz's "Romeo et Juliette" earlier this week. Some of the shaking came from the audience, too: a not-quite full house full of young people who roared their approval.

It was a kaleidoscopic program, the first half featuring the BSO brass and winds in Stravinsky's "Symphonies of Wind Instruments" and Messiaen's "Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum." Stravinsky described his work as "austere ritual which is unfolded in terms of short litanies," a phrase that could be applied to the Messiaen as well, although there is nothing austere about either piece. The Stravinsky is charged with rhythmical and intellectual energy, and the Messiaen has the opulence of a simple cross of hammered gold. Both are full of wonderful sounds, and both made Symphony Hall ring. Messiaen's music mingles plainchant (heard in the percussion), birdsong, Hindu rhythms, and fascinating colors in a clear, coherent design that is anything but abstract -- a cathedral is being built, stone by stone. Both performances were vigorous, intelligent, and exceedingly well-played; Levine's visual contribution was even more minimalist than usual, as if he were directing chamber music.

After intermission came the workout for the strings, Bartok's glorious "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta" and Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night." Bartok's design is even more complex than Messiaen's, but it melts into the music; Messiaen wants you to see the blueprint. The playing was superb both in Bartok's atmospheric night music and in the exuberant day music; there were strong contributions by Vytas Baksys at the piano and Deborah Emery on the celesta.

By the time it was over, it was nearly 10 p.m. and there was a long stage change -- the maestro, a veteran of years in the pit, seems to like concerts that last at least as long as Puccini's "Tosca." Some members of the audience fled at the dread name of Schoenberg, perhaps not realizing that "Transfigured Night" is perhaps the ripest plum ever to drop from the tree of romanticism.

Levine's handling of this erotically supercharged piece was masterly; in less assured performances the heavy breathing can take over and leave the audience as exhausted as the players. Levine shaped the climaxes and let them build proportionately; he let us hear all the turbulent and ultimately radiant inner life of the music, which sounded all the more passionate because it was so strictly controlled.

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