No one would have blamed the Boston Symphony Orchestra for feeling demoralized when it appeared at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night. This was the first of three programs at the hall that its music director, James Levine, was to have conducted.
But early this month, coping with a lingering back pain and related health issues, Mr. Levine withdrew from the rest of the Boston Symphony season and, as expected, resigned as music director effective Sept. 1, leaving the orchestra in a leadership crisis.
Warming up onstage before the concert, the Boston musicians did seem subdued. Still, there was nothing subdued about their playing. This unusual and fascinating program offered three works for violin and orchestra, including the New York premiere of Harrison Birtwistle`s new Violin Concerto, featuring the brilliant German violinist Christian Tetzlaff. Taking Mr. Levine`s place was Marcelo Lehninger, 31, a Brazilian-born assistant conductor at the Boston Symphony, who had led the same program this month in Boston. He was terrific, conducting all three works with impressive technique, musical insight and youthful energy.
The orchestra sounded great. And Mr. Tetzlaff had a triumphant night. Before his intensely affecting performance of Mr. Birtwistle`s daunting new concerto, he gave a lithe, elegant account of Mozart`s Rondo in C for violin and orchestra. He concluded the evening with Bartok`s Violin Concerto No. 2, offering a dazzling yet probing performance of this difficult piece.
Mr. Birtwistle, 76, is a towering figure in British music. His language, though complex and modernistic, is distinctive and exhilarating. In his 40s, he wrote a great deal of incidental music. He is also a significant opera composer. So even his thorny pieces have dramatic sweep and flair.
Most of his instrumental works bear descriptive titles, many drawn from Greek drama. But not this concerto, which is written in one continuous episodic movement of nearly 30 minutes. Many composers draw on the David and Goliath potential of the concerto genre to generate conflict between soloist and orchestra. Yet there is little sense of conflict in Mr. Birtwistle`s concerto. Rather, this moody, shifting piece comes across like an involved, intense, sometimes tortured but always respectful conversation. During five stretches of the work, the violin engages in sort of sub-talks with a series of solo instruments: flute, piccolo, oboe, cello and bassoon.
But the concerto does not begin like a conversation. The orchestra emits a murky mass of soft, tremulous sounds, like some primordial stew, from which the violin emerges, posing the first thoughts, the first questions. Soon the orchestra breaks into spurts, echoing the rhythmically restless violin lines, as if reframing or rebutting the statements.
Throughout the piece the violin plays a stream of jagged chords, gnarly intervals and twisted thematic flights. Then something will happen in the orchestra — a pungent harmony, a twitch of somber counterpoint — and the violin responds with a wafting melodic line in its shimmering high range. You know that this elusive yet organic concerto is coming to an end when the music breaks into circular riffs and then spins itself out, settling into a piercing, pensive final episode. The violin cannot stop fidgeting but finally does, ending the conversation, for now, with a few plucked clusters.
After the Birtwistle, I thought the Bartok was going to sound like a folk music concerto. Not in this riveting performance. The first movement came across as a lyrical joy ride with lyrical spans and bumpy patches, the second movement, a theme and variations, never seemed so moody. Even the chirpy finale, which keeps getting interrupted by virtuosic excursions and a ruminative, radiant timeout, was wonderfully fresh. Mr. Tetzlaff and Mr. Lehninger emphasized the work`s wildness and fractured character.
In a way, Mr. Levine was present here. He fostered a relationship between Mr. Tetzlaff and the Boston Symphony, had devised this program with him and commissioned the Birtwistle work. He brought Mr. Lehninger to Boston and deserves enormous credit for reinvigorating this eminent orchestra. Perhaps this was a night to think about the positive impact of Mr. Levine`s tenure at the Boston Symphony.