There is no strand in the Boston Symphony Orchestra's history more glorious than the new works it has commissioned -- more than 90 of them. Music director James Levine chose for his final program in 2005 a long and exceptionally demanding sequence for players, audience, and conductor. In fact, both assistant conductors are standing by for this program in case of emergency, one for each half.
Bartok's ''Concerto for Orchestra" started after 10 p.m. and ended more than 40 minutes later, but few people left; Symphony Hall was the place to be Thursday night, and the level of playing was amazing, especially considering that this was a short week of rehearsal because the orchestra performed in New York Monday.
Levine led off with Henri Dutilleux's Symphony No. 2, ''Le Double," written in 1959. The title comes from the composer's decision to write the work for a 12-member chamber orchestra embedded in the larger ensemble; there's mystery and mirror-play between the two ensembles. The piece is a kind of tribute to Stravinsky, with a sidelong glance at Gershwin; it sounds at once intricately and fastidiously fashioned and spontaneous. A harpsichord (played by Mark Kroll) contributes a kind of pungent vinaigrette.
Stravinsky's ''Symphony of Psalms" also stands on the shoulder of a great model, in this case his own earlier ''Oedipus rex." The close of the third psalm is extraordinary as Stravinsky manipulates rhythm, tempo, and harmony to suggest impearled gates swinging wide to open upon a vista of eternity. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus was splendid in tone, intonation, and commitment, singing, as always, from memory.
Levine was leading Elliott Carter's ''Boston Concerto" for the first time; it premiered under Ingo Metzmacher in 2002. Like much of Carter's late music, it retains the complexity of vision and technique from his earlier work but delivers it in a direct, luminous, and accessible fashion. Like the Dutilleux, it owes something to the baroque concerto grosso; an iridescent pointillistic passage meant to depict the fall of raindrops serves as a refrain. Between appearances various subgroups of the orchestra present commentary and contrast. The composer, in the audience, got a big hand; he turns 97 next week.
Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, premiered in 1944, is probably the most famous of the BSO commissions. The orchestra has performed it countless times under great conductors, but Levine reportedly worked on it as if no one had ever seen it before. The effect was startling, like the restoration of a great painting generations of people have learned to love beneath layers of varnish and grime. A lot of the playing was terrific; bass trombonist Douglas Yeo even had a special instrument built so that he could do justice to a two-note solo that has often been fudged. There were intermittent signs of fatigue, but this concert was unquestionably an event.