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Levine gives visiting orchestra a hand

There were two debuts in the Bank of America Celebrity Series last night, one announced, one a surprise. What the audience came to hear was the debut of Staatskapelle Berlin under the direction of Daniel Barenboim. The surprise was an appearance by Boston Symphony Orchestra music director James Levine, who joined Barenboim at the piano to play a 4-hand Rondo in C Major by Mozart.

Barenboim had attended Levine's matinee with the BSO yesterday and the two musicians cooked up this treat; Levine beamed from the balcony during the performance of Mozart's 39th Symphony by Barenboim and the Staatskapelle. After playing Mozart's E-Flat Piano Concerto, K. 482 (gorgeously), Barenboim introduced Levine by saying there are musicians he admires and musicians that he likes; Levine, he said, is both.

Dressed in his navy-blue fatigues and red shoes, Levine took the bass part, anchoring the harmony and serving as the rhythm section, while Barenboim wove poised and translucent arabesques in the treble. The informal interaction of these two great musicians and the spontaneity and charm of the performance could only arise in a live concert.

So was the electricity generated by Barenboim and the orchestra he has led since 1992. The orchestra has a Mozart tradition -- amazingly, it existed 186 years before the composer was born. Also, in its double role in the pit of the Lindenoper in Berlin, it has played all of Mozart's principal operas, and you could tell that in the urgency and character it brought to every phrase in Mozart's 39th and 40th symphonies.

The orchestra makes a wonderful sound, with more prominent and pungent reeds and winds than we are used to, an effect magnified by their central position on metal risers above the strings. Like most visiting ensembles, the Staatskapelle was on its mettle in the home of the BSO, and in front of its audience, Barenboim also had a hand -- two of them, actually -- in producing the prodigious energy, focus, and discipline.

Barenboim's take on Mozart is in some respects old-fashioned -- the sound is big to match the music's gestures and emotions, and the unbroken legato is sumptuous. Because this way is authentic for him and his orchestra, it worked. Barenboim has probably been underrated as a pianist since he started conducting in the early 1960s.

Last night he was in magnificent form, playing with sprightly rhythms and ravishing colors and dynamics. If the style, especially in the cadenzas, sounded like Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and even Debussy, the insight and feeling were entirely Mozartean.

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