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BSO's season opens with new Beethoven twist

Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, a hymn to "the gifts of art" and "music's magic," traditionally ends concerts and musical seasons. But principal guest conductor Bernard Haitink chose it to open the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 123d season last night. It was an inspired idea, and he paired the Fantasy with another work premiered on the same four-hour marathon concert in 1808, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

Last night's dressy gala audience assembled early in Symphony Hall to hear a slightly abbreviated program before a celebratory dinner; high heels arriving on the Huntington Avenue side moved gingerly along the handsome but treacherous new brick sidewalk. Inside there was champagne, and there were crowds thronging around tables laden with crackers and cheese. The concert finally began about 20 minutes late.

Pianists love the Choral Fantasy because they get to keep about 200 other people onstage waiting for them to finish the opening solo cadenza, a long passage that Beethoven improvised at the premiere and wrote down only later.

The Slovenian pianist Dubravka Tomsic, who has become a local favorite since she resumed her American career 15 years ago, is a great interpreter of Beethoven, as we know from the two concertos she has already performed with the BSO, not to mention several sonatas in recitals for the FleetBoston Celebrity Series. Last night she played with splendor, drama, passion, poetry, and subtlety, quick to catch every chameleon mood with new colors, dynamics, and articulations, and supported by a tensile rhythmic sense. The speed and evenness of her trill are matchless, and she can reduce it to a whisper without altering the tempo or the texture. No wonder the Tanglewood Festival Chorus applauded her at the first rehearsal.

When Haitink and the orchestra chimed in for the variations than anticipate the "Ode to Joy" in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the performance began to accumulate structure and to move toward the jubilant destiny of the final choral hymn, delivered fervently as call-and-response by a small ensemble and the full group. The six firm-voiced soloists were Meredith Malone Armbrust, Susan Harris, Jaque E. Wilson, Kwan H. Lee, Henry Lussier, and Ishan Arvell Johnson.

There was a brief moment of uneasy harmonic asynchronicity toward the end, but it swiftly scudded away, like a cloud before the final sunburst.

After a brief pause, Haitink presided over a stirring account of one of the most famous and familiar symphonies, and made the Fifth sound fresh again.

Others may whip up more superficial excitement in this music, but Haitink works at the DNA level, with essentials -- rhythm, tempo, tempo relationships, dynamics, and the articulation of form. That means the satisfactions he offers are fundamental. This is what Beethoven must have been thinking about.

The playing flooded Symphony Hall with glorious sound -- the solo winds led by oboist John Ferrillo earned a special bow, and the conductor went out of his way to acknowledge the bass section. The audience leapt to its feet to give the performance and the conductor a standing ovation. The orchestra refused to rise at Haitink's signal, choosing to join the public in applauding him, so we know what the musicians thought.

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