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Historic symphonies elicit emotional performances

Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.

There was drama at the end of Wednesday night's Boston Symphony Orchestra concert when music director James Levine, after acknowledging the standing ovation, turned to exit, tripped, and crashed to the floor. In a horrified silence he stood up, and to renewed applause danced a little jig. He returned to the stage a final time, ostentatiously dusting off his tails to demonstrate that he was OK. (For more, see Classical Notes, D6.)

There was even more drama in the concert, which paired Arnold Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony with Beethoven's Ninth. Beethoven expanded the classical symphony to unprecedented size and length in the Ninth, and Schoenberg distilled the mighty romantic symphony into a 20-minute work of unprecedented but lucid complexity of form and density of detail. Both symphonies changed the history of music.

At a Schoenberg seminar jointly held by the BSO and Harvard on Monday, pianist and scholar Robert Levin declared the First Chamber Symphony the most dazzling and inventive piece of music ever written. It is certainly one of them, as the intense and involving performance by Levine and the BSO glowingly demonstrated.

The Ninth, of course, is one of the icons of Western culture; one of the concerns of the inventors of the CD was to create a medium that would make it possible to listen to the 75-minute work without interruption. Levine engaged with this work as an urgent drama unfolding in the present. The performance Wednesday night wasn't consistent, but it was certainly headed in a right direction. The Scherzo hurtled along with tremendous, controlled rhythmic excitement, and most of the slow movement was played with a rare patience, serenity, and warmth.

But Levine was at his best in the finale, which is full of complex relationships among contrasting tempos and emotional characters. He handled the recitatives with variety and authority and let the big melody soar.

Bass Albert Dohmen launched the vocal section majestically and sonorously, and the other soloists were strong -- mezzo Jill Grove, the sturdy tenor Clifton Forbis, and soprano Christine Brewer, who had flown to the rescue of Beethoven's ''Missa Solemnis" earlier this season. She took a naughty breath before her climactic high B, small price to pay for the blue-diamond radiance of the tone that followed. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, trained by John Oliver, delivered the mighty message of universal brotherhood with confidence and conviction.

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