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Levine, in superb form, returns to lead BSO at Tanglewood

James Levine conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra last night at Tanglewood in Lenox.
James Levine conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra last night at Tanglewood in Lenox. (William Moore Photo for The Boston Globe)

LENOX -- A standing ovation from a gala-opening audience at Tanglewood Friday night greeted the new trim-line James Levine's first public walk to the podium in four months. The Boston Symphony's music director was back in action after his onstage fall last march in Symphony Hall after this very program -- Schoenberg and Beethoven -- and subsequent rotator cuff surgery.

Levine may not yet be ready to dance Prince Siegfried in ``Swan Lake," but he's lighter and more secure on his feet and visibly overjoyed to be back in his favorite element, music -- sometimes he looked like a baby, splashing in the water.

He's still more comfortable conducting from a chair, but he got so excited he leaped out of it at the end of the ``Ode to Joy" that crowns Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The 35-pound weight loss seems to have liberated his arms. He was obviously careful with his right, which took the fall, but he lifted it above his shoulder at the end of the Scherzo, which is something we haven't seen in a long time, and the left arm was more sweepingly active than it has been in recent seasons.

Now he is better positioned to bring others along with him as he pursues his goal of going deeper and deeper into the music. Opening night at Tanglewood is often ragged because the musicians have just completed the steeplechase of the Pops, but last night was from any point of view a terrific concert.

Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony (1907) and the Beethoven Ninth make a fascinating program. Both composers were out to change the symphonic rules. At the time of its premiere the Ninth was the longest symphony ever written, and to contemporary ears the most discordant. Even the opening, as the music hovers between keys, asking what direction it's going to take, offers a grinding dissonance just as it makes up its mind. Beethoven is about expansion; Schoenberg about density and condensation as he folds five ``movements" into one impeccable, implacable uninterrupted sequence.

Levine and the orchestra demonstrated that this meaty music is not an abstract exercise, but instead full of rich and steaming juices. The pacing was confident, the balances made it possible to hear all the simultaneous and overlapping activity, and the playing was sumptuous.

The Ninth, traditionally the season-closer at Tanglewood, was moved to the opening, but it is a piece appropriate to every occasion. This too was remarkable in every respect -- the pinpoint precision of the Scherzo, the bel canto warmth of the slow movement, the richness of detail in the finale. Constantly one heard things afresh -- the woodwinds sporting like porpoises around the famous melody of the finale, to cite just one example.

The solo quartet came from Levine's other major arena of responsibility, the Metropolitan Opera. Bass John Relyea, a onetime rock singer, has a rather soft-edged voice for the opening proclamation, but he did sock it out. Clifton Forbis's hefty tenor strode steadily over the steep hills of his part. Wendy White, valiant and musical, struggled to be heard, like all other mezzos in this piece. Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky , a little over a decade ago a Tanglewood Music Center fellow, offered a darkly dramatic timbre and spectacular high notes. The tireless Tanglewood Festival Chorus poured it on, and without screaming.

The audience contained many musical luminaries. Singer/songwriter James Taylor was wearing a seersucker suit and a straw boater. Nearby pianist Garrick Ohlsson was seated next to cellist Yo-Yo Ma , and behind pianist Emanuel Ax . There goes the neighborhood. When the Ninth ended there was another standing O, and the solo quartet made a point of applauding their boss. Levine repeatedly bounced offstage and returned as if he didn't need to watch his step and had not a worry in the world; he's back where he belongs.

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