Last night in Symphony Hall, James Levine led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of John Harbison's Symphony No. 5, and Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde." The pairing made for an exceptionally well-integrated program, as the two halves of the evening seemed to be speaking to each other.
There were the obvious external symmetries, in that both Harbison's new work - a BSO commission - and Mahler's "Das Lied" are in some way song-symphonies with central roles given to a pair of vocalists. But there was also the connecting theme of loss and of leave-taking, or of bidding farewell in the words of Mahler's text, to "this life-drunken world."
These themes were already looming in Harbison's purely orchestral sketches for his Fifth Symphony when Levine apparently suggested that the composer consider adding a vocalist. He took the suggestion and really ran with it, returning with an accomplished four-movement work that has extremely prominent roles for baritone and mezzo-soprano. By way of amplifying his original theme, he chose three poems connected to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, by Czeslaw Milosz, Rainer Maria Rilke, and the Cambridge-based poet Louise Glück.
The vocal writing is sensitive and compelling across all four movements, and Harbison's orchestra, spiked with an electric guitar (played by composer Michael Gandolfi), is lean and concise, full of imaginative sounds and percussion effects, but most of all, extremely responsive to the imagery suggested by the poetry at hand. When Milosz's Orpheus descends into a surreal underworld of endless corridors and elevators, the orchestra descends with him; when Eurydice begins her journey back, we hear a haunting passage full of dissociated, zombie-like string writing. The other movements show a similarly keen responsiveness to text, especially as rendered by last night's fine soloists, Nathan Gunn and Kate Lindsey.
But there are dangers here too. At its best, the musical-poetic play of mirrors was arresting, but on first hearing, the orchestra's role often felt overly circumscribed, limited to providing commentary or brief snippets of mood rather than embodying and refracting this myth on its own terms. The symphony begins with a vigorous passage for the orchestra alone, full of emphatic whip-lash gestures, and fierce blasts of punctuation, and it ends with a similar burst of visceral energy. It made me wish there was more writing in this spirit.
After intermission, Levine led the orchestra in a vibrant, spacious, and richly satisfying performance of "Das Lied von der Erde." Tenor Ben Heppner, after recently saddling Levine with a string of Tristan cancellations at the Met, made karmic amends this week by replacing an indisposed Johan Botha, and singing the part heroically, especially in the eruptive lyricism of the first and fifth song. Mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter sang with exceptional refinement and a lustrous silvery tone, though also with an expressive temperature that tended toward the chilly. The very end fell a bit short of the transcendence it was aiming for, but throughout, Levine achieved a remarkable transparency and the orchestra sounded at or near its glorious best.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.