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BSO delights with American fare

Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra's first American music director, James Levine, chose an all-American program for this week. The works by Elliott Carter, Lukas Foss, Charles Ives, and George Gershwin couldn't stand in bolder contrast, but there is one point of similarity -- each piece is melting-pot music. Several different kinds of music are going on, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes sequentially.

The world premiere was two-thirds of Carter's ''Three Illusions." All three brief pieces are responses to literary fantasies -- ''Micomicon," premiered last season, to ''Don Quixote"; the brand new ''The Fountain of Youth" to Roman myth; and ''More's Utopia" to Sir Thomas More's vision of an ideal society. The music is fantastical too: There is no way to know what's going to bubble up next, but it is always surprising, inevitable, and vividly orchestrated. ''Micomicon" is romantic and heroic; ''Utopia" is dark and severe; ''Fountain" is playful and takes a place in the great tradition of iridescent water music. The performances were committed, and the audience greeted the 96-year-old composer with a long standing ovation.

Levine began with Ives's ''Three Places in New England" -- the dignified and powerful ''The 'St. Gaudens' in Boston Common," the rowdy and rambunctious ''Putnam's Camp," and the delicately tinted nature painting of ''The Housatonic at Stockbridge." Conductor and orchestra were attuned to all the elements in the music.

Back when he was a teenager, in 1960, Levine helped soprano Adele Addison prepare for the premiere of Foss's ''Time Cycle," a musical meditation on the ways we perceive time. Forty-five years into its life, the piece stands at the intersection of quaint and progressive. The tick-tock and bell-like elements would have delighted Haydn; the third song, a setting of a diary entry by Kafka, is pure Viennese expressionism from a century ago; the last song steps outside of time in a manner reminiscent of Mahler. Improvised interludes, omitted this week, place it securely in the '60s. The force of Foss's personality holds it together. Soprano Dawn Upshaw sang the daunting intervals with musicianship, taste, and imaginative involvement with the texts.

The Gershwin Piano Concerto bridges Ravel and smoky nightclubs, Broadway and Rachmaninoff. The mixture is improbable but captivating -- a little like cookbook writer Mark Bittman's recipe for Cornish hens broiled under a sprinkling of pulverized Red Hots. Trumpeter Thomas Rolfs and oboist John Ferrillo contributed torchy solos, and Levine knows how to make the BSO swing. Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet is a dazzler who can play with rare subtlety of touch yet get down and dirty; his razor-clean attack, occasionally drowned out by the exuberance of the orchestration, was exhilarating. The audience gave the French artist a roaring standing O, and before he buttoned up his dapper designer jacket, there was a glimpse of a jeweled belt.

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