LENOX -- The James Levine era began at Tanglewood last night with rain, cold, and Mahler's Eighth Symphony. A crowd of 5,436 people braved the weather to pay their respects, listen to the music, and cheer the Boston Symphony Orchestra's new music director at the end. They cheered him at the beginning, too -- Levine, whose only previous appearance at Tanglewood was 33 years ago, was greeted with a standing ovation.
The Mahler Eighth has been nicknamed the ''Symphony of a Thousand" because of the huge forces required to perform it. Levine made do with 361 musicians, but they produced a mighty and thrilling noise. The first movement of the symphony is a setting of an ancient Latin hymn. The music is so tightly wound that it explodes -- it lasts 25 minutes or so, but it passes like a flash of lightning, a noisy one. Levine and his orchestra, the soloists, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and the American Boychoir fired it like a cannon -- it was noisy and exciting, it was hectic, and the temptation to scream offered by the vocal writing was not avoided.
The longer second movement, a setting of the final cosmic scene of Goethe's ''Faust" drama, is sublime in subject and in sound. Levine chose this work to open his tenure in Symphony Hall last fall and later took it to New York's Carnegie Hall. That accumulated experience led to an even better performance of the second half last night: It had detail and momentum, rising to passages of sustained spiritual ecstasy. Levine's building to the final climax was masterly in every way.
Four of the eight soloists were different this time, and if they were a slightly less starry crew, they sang to better effect. Susan Neves knocked out the string of high C's more easily than her celebrated predecessor, Jane Eaglen, and the newly-slim Deborah Voigt poured out radiant sound in the other soprano part. South Africa's Johan Botha sang the difficult tenor part with sensitivity and easy power. When Lorraine Hunt Lieberson canceled because of back trouble, mezzo Yvonne Naef took over to honorable effect, while reliable Jane Henschel stepped into Naef's former role. Baritone Eike Wilm Schulte and bass John Relyea poured out sound and spirit, , and soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, perched above the acoustical shell, delivered rapturous high phrases.
The loudest cheers went to Levine, who deserved them because he was master of all he surveyed, especially in the second part. Thanks to him, it was Mahler who left the deepest impression.