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Levine-led BSO pulls off a sparkling triple play

Only two nights after weathering the violent storms of ''The Flying Dutchman," James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra were back with three contrasting works composed in America in the first half of the 20th century.

The music director led off with the Second Symphony by Charles Ives, substantially complete by 1901 but not premiered until 50 years later. This is music by a well-trained composer in his mid-20s, playing by the rules but already willing to bend them. Many characteristics of the mature Ives are already present, the quotations from and allusions to standard repertory and various national favorites ranging from ''Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" to sturdy hymns like ''Bringing in the Sheaves," and dialect ballads by Stephen Foster that are no longer as universally familiar as they once were because later decades have found them politically incorrect. Ives puts these American elements through formal Continental paces and the effect is beautiful and solemn as well as high-spirited. The last dissonant chord is a joke, added years later, and a touch that will remind experienced audiences of the more unbuttoned Ives that was to come.

Levine led a performance that was more glowing and affectionate than raucous, and cellist Martha Babcock's meditation on ''America the Beautiful" prayerfully touched the heart.

''Ameriques" (1921, revised in 1927) by Edgard Varese sounds familiar even if it isn't (the BSO had never played it): it is among the onetime avant-garde classics most often raided by Hollywood composers in search of vivid sounds. Varese's intersecting cloudscapes of color owe something to Stravinsky's ''Rite of Spring" -- the opening with alto flute, harp, and bassoon comes close to direct quotation -- but the effect is still profoundly original, and the end of the piece, propelled by 14 percussionists, is a rolling fireball that threatens to engulf the hall. Many in the audience responded with full-throated bravos.

After this music by a Frenchman in America, Levine offered Gershwin's ''An American in Paris." This is a staple of the Boston Pops repertory, but it too is new to the BSO. Seldom can this much-abused piece have been conducted and played with such crisp but loping rhythms, and such attention to detail, to balance, and to the variety of character in the music. Levine was especially good at managing the transitions between sections and moods. There were nifty solos by concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, trumpeter Charles Schlueter, tubist Mike Roylance, and others.

Many have commented on the ''new sound" Levine has brought out from the orchestra; ''new sounds" would be more fitting. ''The Flying Dutchman" was true Wagner; this was pure Gershwin.

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