Entering its 107th season, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with its links to musical legends like Pierre Monteux, Serge Koussevitzky, and Charles Munch, has an illustrious past to live up to. And in two opening programs last week it mostly did just that. Subscription audiences Friday and Saturday heard Donald Martino's choral work, ``The White Island,'' paired with Gustav Mahler's First Symphony. Before that, a glittering, black-tie audience at the opening gala last Tuesday heard music by Bernstein and Schubert, plus a luminous rendering of Richard Strauss's Last Four Songs, with soprano Jessye Norman.
Seiji Ozawa, marking the start of his 15th season as BSO music director, told a press conference that the orchestra would tour Europe in December 1988 and that a tour of the Soviet Union is under discussion for 1989. Mr. Ozawa lamented the lack of time for today's orchestras: ``Music is supposed to bring pleasure to life. But to make music is so difficult! ... If the conductor becomes uptight getting the music right, how can it be fun for listeners? Sure, this orchestra can play anything. But when we arrive at that high level, we know we have to go higher. And sometimes when we get there, we don't have time to enjoy that moment. That is the danger.''
This year's addition of violinists Tatiana Dimitriades and James Cooke, together with the return of trumpeter Timothy Morrison to the BSO roster, brings the number of players selected by Ozawa to 51.
On Friday and Saturday, the music director, who is conducting 11 of the 24 weeks this season, shared the stage with John Oliver and his Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Mr. Oliver led the Martino work, a BSO commission heard here in its world premi`ere in April.
A second hearing confirms that Martino's deft setting for 17th-century devotional poems by Robert Herrick is both appealing and durable. The drama inherent in the text's musings on mortality and salvation is mirrored in Martino's resonant, witty, and often lyrical music - chimes and gongs tolling the passage of time; tympani approximating a pounding heart; strings and winds echoing the storms of the soul; brass ringing out alarums. Martino creates dialogues in the chorus to give voice to the mind's intermittent tug of war between fear and hope, a contest finally resolved in this piece with an ethereal meditation on heavenly bliss. The chorus gave an assured performance, and the orchestra was seldom caught off guard by Martino's strenuous rhythmic and dynamic demands, ranging from bombastic to dreamlike.
Ozawa took the podium for the Mahler, which the orchestra will record today for Philips as part of a cycle that began last season. The sprawling, much-revised First caused consternation during Mahler's lifetime, when audiences thought it might be a parody rather than a symphony. Actually Mahler was entirely serious, if not quite certain how to explain a work that imitates the sounds of a summer meadow, recycles a song of his own and ``Fr`ere Jacques,'' and punctuates the monumental finale with crashes of thunder.
In a reading that minimizes its weaknesses, the First becomes a shimmering theatrical piece capable of enchanting an audience. The Friday performance, however, was only partly successful, right from the seven-octave opening chord. Though meant to evoke something like the hum of crickets, a brook, and soft breezes in the distance, the beginning was lacking in subtlety and mystery. The instrumental chirps, buzzes, and cries that followed and many individual parts of the work were effective, however. The main problem was that the magical changes of focus from one motif, texture, or instrumental group to another were sometimes fuzzy.
Fortunately no such problems surfaced at the Tuesday evening gala, where Jessye Norman's remarkably sensitive and sumptuous singing brought home the poignancy and contentment Richard Strauss, looking back over eight decades of life, breathed into his Last Four Songs. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus partnered the orchestra in the lively performance of Bernstein's ``Chichester Psalms,'' with boy alto Raymond Jourdan. And the orchestra brought its accustomed sheen to Schubert's ``Unfinished'' Symphony.