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Varied BSO program leaves'em laughing, applauding

Radu Lupu
Boston Herald

From sublime to ridiculous, back to sublime, then ridiculously sublime. That about sums up Thursday evening's Boston Symphony Orchestra performance at Symphony Hall.

David Zinman was at the helm, giving crisp leadership to works by John Harbison, Mozart (the D minor piano concerto, with Radu Lupu soloist), and Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony.

 Harbison's "Canonical American Songbook" does manage to go from sublime to ridiculous - with panache. Five settings of classic American tunes - from "Careless Love" to "Aura Lee" to "We Shall Overcome" - the score is full of nuance and wit. The ridiculous part comes at the end, a tune Harbison calls "Anniversary Song" that finishes as "Happy Birthday" played by the winds and horns on mouthpieces only. The resulting kazoo-like exposition brought gales of laughter from the house - a rare opportunity for obvioushumor in serious music.

 Lupu, the mad Romanian, is an outstanding Mozart interpreter, and playing the D minor gave him ample opportunity to prove it.

 The concerto is one of only two by Mozart in a minor key, which in itself would not be remarkable if one ignored Mozart's inventive and playful nature. One would think he'd have experimented more with darker moods, but it probably had more to do with the tastes of his era than anything else. It's a concerto in the big, modern sense, full of energy and drama.

 This evening, Lupu played cadenzas by Beethoven, who gained considerable fame performing the work, at the end of the first and last movements.

 Beethoven captures the real essence of the concerto in his cadenzas by exploring the simple theme of the piece over and over until its possibilities are exhausted.

 Why the Rachmaninoff Third Symphony doesn't get performed very often remains a mystery. Avoiding much of the bombast that plagues some of his other symphonies and concertos, the Third has direct emotional passages, lovely solos for horns and violin, fetching duets (the harp and horn section that opens the slow middle movement is mesmerizing) and a finale that packs a classical wallop.

 Zinman fastidiously insisted on measured tempos and volume. It worked, beautifully.