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Future looks bright as Levine and BSO open season with polished playing

With starry soloists, brilliant orchestral playing , and a new stage floor to support them both, the Boston Symphony Orchestra opened its 126th season last night in Symphony Hall. James Levine , beginning his third season with the BSO, conducted an American-themed program to a near-capacity crowd. He and the orchestra were embraced with a warm welcome to start the night and a standing ovation to end it.

Meanwhile, Symphony Hall has a new gleam. While the orchestra was toiling away at Tanglewood this summer, the BSO replaced the original stage floor, which dated to 1900 and was in desperate need of attention. In order to preserve the hall's acoustics, great care was taken to replicate the older floor, from the hard maple wood down to the hand-cut nails, but the new floor has not been stained so the color is bright, lending the hall a fresh crisp look. Portions of the old floorboards, with over a century of music history in their crevices, have been made into commemorative pens that the BSO will soon begin selling to its fans.

Part of the history witnessed by that floor, and now, well, by those pens, is Barber's extraordinary ``Knoxville: Summer of 1915" for soprano and orchestra, premiered by Serge Koussevitzky and the BSO in 1948 . The marvel of this work begins with its text: James Agee's achingly tender prose poem in which he recalls a languorous summer evening spent as a young boy lying out with his family beneath the darkening sky. The poem conjures the boy's dreamy calm, nestled in the safe embrace of his family, cocooned in a world untouched by sorrow. But the text is also weighted by a deep poignancy that flows from the author's adult awareness of the tragedy -- the death of his father -- that lay in that little boy's near but unknowable future.

The bittersweet, warm yet lean harmonies of Barber's opening phrases perfectly disclose the curdled innocence of Agee's prose. In his first professional performance of the work, Levine led the orchestra with exquisite clarity and poise. Renée Fleming bathed the vocal lines in her luxurious soprano, strong yet never strident. She returned later with two famous Gershwin numbers -- ``Summertime" and ``My Man's Gone Now" from ``Porgy and Bess" -- beautifully delivered again.

Between the two works, Levine led the orchestra and the flutist James Galway in a fine performance of William Bolcom's ``Lyric Concerto." Written for Galway in 1992-93, it's an impish, witty romp of a piece with a skittering first movement titled ``Leprechaun" and a finale doused with jazz. If anyone can sew a fistful of diverse styles into a seamless cloth it is Bolcom, one of the great American masters of eclecticism. It's also worth noting that many orchestras typically give their opening-night gala audiences programs scrubbed clean of contemporary music. So in choosing to showcase a work by a major living composer, Levine made a clear statement of his commitment to the music of our time, independent of the occasion.

After intermission came an American work of a different vintage: Dvorak's ``New World" Symphony . The composer had been imported to these shores in 1892 to help fashion a new American style, as he had done so brilliantly with Czech music. Never mind that his new school did not take off. His blend of homesickness and inchoate musical nationalism created one of the great monuments of the symphonic literature. Levine and the orchestra sounded spectacular. It would be hard to ask for a more exciting start to the new season.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at

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