Rarely does art slide from the sublime to the ridiculous as quickly as it did this weekend at Symphony Hall. The challenging program included Berg's Violin Concerto and Mahler's gigantic Ninth Symphony, and featured the "return," as it were, of James Levine, who hadn't led the orchestra since opening night. Both Berg and Mahler are among Levine's favorite composers, so I expected fireworks, at least technically, and at first, indeed, the evening succeeded brilliantly. The Berg soloist, Christian Tetzlaff (at left), proved perfectly suited to the demands of the tremulously sensitive concerto, with an impeccable attack that lightly cut the pathos of the piece and imbued it with a luminous clarity. The concerto is famously the only twelve-tone work to have "crossed over" into the standard repertoire, but this is partly because its "tone row" embraces several major and minor chords, so the piece never devolves into harmonic chaos, but flutters through a restless tonalism. To many, the Concerto is a requiem - for the sudden death of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius's daughter, Manon, to be precise - but it's rather more a poem of neurasthenic romance, as clotted as a chapter from Proust with melancholic quotes and references, which a performer can indicate but never, perhaps, fully illuminate. Still, Tetzlaff more than kept the fever dream afloat - and the orchestra never sounded better, supporting but not occluding the soloist with a lush, yet precise musical pointillism.
The second half of the concert, Mahler's elephantine Ninth (the composer, at left), began even more spectacularly. I may have never heard the BSO play more thrillingly than it did in the first movement (nor have I ever seen Levine so emotionally committed to a performance). It occurred to me that this sprawling symphony is far more operatic than I'd ever imagined, and that Levine had found a kind of turbo-charged vocalise in the life-and-death battle of the first movement's conflicting themes. If the evening had ended there, the concert might have been one for the history books. But alas, the Ninth's ars is famously longa, with a final movement that lingers almost interminably, and as the evening stretched past two and a half hours, the rude beast of the Symphony crowd's philistinism began to stir. Levine didn't help matters by more than indulging Mahler's instructions ("very slow and held back"), gradually ratcheting the orchestra down to the edge of audibility even as the composer wandered down new, and not entirely compelling, thematic byways. Some patrons had already left between the second and third movements, but as the fourth ground on, the bluehairs began to just get up and walk out. There was prominent coughing in the hall, and the college kids in front of me began to fight the giggles (it didn't help that Levine was all but clawing the air). At the final, dy-y-ying coda, the maestro slumped down on his stool as if he, too, had just passed on, and suddenly I thought things might get really ugly; the crowd seemed to be holding back its laughter. In his Globe review, Jeremy Eichler had opined that "At the very end, you couldn't tell exactly where the music stopped and the silence began," but I'm afraid the audience on Friday made that decision post haste: a kind of angry applause started in the balcony, even as the orchestra hesitated to lower its instruments and Levine held his dying-swan pose. Finally, however, he stirred, obviously disgruntled. But by then I was already on my feet and headed out the door.
But where the philistines wrong? Perhaps, this time, no; sometimes composers do themselves no favors in their notes, and more forward motion might have better held the fourth movement together (not to mention the audience's attention). I, too, was glad to get out of there - and was almost amused by the BSO crowd's balls. I've never seen a theatre crowd get that pissed, even though quite a few had a right to. Why are music fans so much more - um - forthright? It's a point worth pondering.