Harbison, Mahler a good match

James Levine led the BSO in Mahler's Fifth. James Levine led the BSO in Mahler's Fifth.
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / October 15, 2010

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There was a time in the not-so-distant past when many composers avoided calling a large orchestral work a symphony. The term was outmoded, it was thought, carrying the baggage of a sclerotic tradition that the avant-garde was only too happy to avoid.

But John Harbison was never “one of those who felt the Symphony was played out,’’ as he wrote in a program note for last night’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concert. The concert was the first in a retrospective of Harbison’s five symphonies that will take place during this season and the next, culminating in the premiere of his Sixth, which the orchestra has commissioned.

Last night, music director James Levine brought together Harbison’s Third Symphony with Mahler’s Fifth. It was an apt pairing of two composers who inherited a symphonic tradition and molded it to their own creative impulses.

The Third, written in 1990, begins with a series of eerie, downward slides in the orchestra. What follows in the symphony’s five movements is a search for a way forward from this discomfiting opening. The edgy first movement gives way to wistfulness in the second, with an insinuating clarinet duet — superbly played by Thomas Martin and Michael Wayne — winding its way through. A scherzo of military brutality follows, filled with hammering rhythms. The finale reaches a pitch of almost desperate intensity before a jazz lick in the muted brass signifies the approach of hard-won, energetic victory.

It’s a kaleidoscopic yet approachable piece. Many of the hallmarks of Harbison’s music are there, including long, circuitous melodies of uncertain harmony and a masterful handling of orchestral texture. The Third has been in Levine’s repertoire for a number of years, and he led a performance of deep conviction and assurance. For its part, the orchestra played superbly, with a dark richness in the strings and the brass.

The Mahler Fifth followed after intermission, and it was a mixed bag. Portions of it — especially in the first two movements — seemed unusually square. There was an element of drive that seemed to be missing, even at moments of great volume. (And the volume was great: some moments were almost cruelly loud.) The orchestra sounded scrappier than it had.

Still, the performance grew in confidence and power as it went on. Levine was at his best navigating the scherzo, with its numerous diversions and byways. Its lengthy horn solos were ably dispatched by James Sommerville, and trumpeter Thomas Rolfs shone throughout the evening. The famous Adagietto for strings and harp that followed was transfixing, and the Rondo-Finale brought the night to an exuberant end.


At: Symphony Hall, last night

(repeats today and tomorrow)