In BSO’s hour of need, young conductor displays triumphant poise

Boston Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor Shi-Yeon Sung’s leadership was impressively crisp, clear, and elegant. Boston Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor Shi-Yeon Sung’s leadership was impressively crisp, clear, and elegant. (Michael J. Lutch for The Boston Globe)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / September 30, 2009

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Temperatures rose yesterday across the classical music world as three of the largest institutions in the Northeast -- the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera, and Carnegie Hall -- all grappled with the news that James Levine would be undergoing emergency surgery this week for a herniated disc. The procedure will take place in New York and the exact recovery period is anyone’s guess. Levine has withdrawn from performances with the BSO and at the Met.

And in an industry where major dates are typically booked years in advance, BSO officials last night were in the frightening position of not knowing who will lead the orchestra when it opens the Carnegie Hall season tomorrow for the first time in over a decade.

Meanwhile closer to home, it must have been an incredibly stressful day for the 34-year-old conductor Shi-Yeon Sung. She was tapped to step in for Levine at last night’s performance of Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms’’ and Mozart’s “Requiem.’’ As one of the BSO’s two assistant conductors, she had been attending Levine’s rehearsals but had not had any of her own rehearsal time on these works with the orchestra or the chorus. She had performed the Mozart piece before but had never led the Stravinsky. Her maiden voyage with that work took place last night before a packed Symphony Hall.

Given the circumstances, it was a triumphant evening for Sung. Conducting from what appeared to be two tiny pocket scores, she led vibrant and accomplished performances of both works. There were naturally some tentative moments in the “Symphony of Psalms’’ but overall Stravinsky’s masterpiece was given a vivid and stirring reading attuned to the work’s tart lyricism and mysterious beauty. Having been commissioned by the BSO under Serge Koussevitzky, this piece resides somewhere deep in the orchestra’s DNA, but there was also no mistaking the look of relief on the faces of the woodwind players when this performance ended without major incident.

The Mozart was also a pleasure, well-shaped and dramatically characterized, with a broad spaciousness when called for and real vigor when required. One could never expect Levine’s veteran theatrical sense of pacing in a conductor so young, but Sung’s leadership was crisp, clear and elegant. The BSO is fortunate to have someone so skilled and poised.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at

BSO Shi-Yeon Sung, conductor

At: Symphony Hall, last night

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