This fabled, paradoxical city -- historic shrine, student mecca and clotted drag strip for the meanest drivers on the planet -- has never been shy about self-congratulation, and it has a great deal to be proud of right now.

No, not just the Red Sox (although the team does have a way of coming up in conversation now and then). Rather, an even more venerable institution -- the redoubtable Boston Symphony Orchestra, the third-oldest such ensemble in the United States and traditionally one of the best -- has a new leader, and on Friday night, he hit the musical equivalent of a series of grand slams out of Symphony Hall and into the heavens beyond.

James Levine is the 14th music director in the BSO's 123-year history, and he chose the colossal, ecstatically affirmative Symphony No. 8 by Gustav Mahler to inaugurate his tenure. Because it calls for a huge orchestra (augmented by booming organ), eight vocal soloists and as many choristers as you can fit on a stage, it is sometimes referred to as the "Symphony of a Thousand." On Friday, the Bostonians managed to make do with a "mere" 328 musicians, but it would be hard to imagine a more exciting, exuberant and richly detailed performance.

The symphony itself is a marvel, albeit a somewhat controversial one. The first movement is a 25-minute setting of an 8th-century Christian hymn, "Veni creator spiritus" ("Come, Creator Spirit") -- a wildly busy, half-crazed hallelujah for voices and orchestra in full thrall. The second movement, a full hour in duration, is nothing less than a complete musical rendering of the metaphysical final scene from Goethe's "Faust," with roles for "Blessed Children," "More Perfect Angels," "Chorus Mysticus" and a "Pater Ecstaticus," the last of whom, the author suggests helpfully, is supposed to declaim his lines while "floating up and down." (No wonder Part II of "Faust" is so seldom staged!)

It's all over the top, of course, but thrillingly so. I much prefer Mahler the spectacular and industrious noisemaker to Mahler the frenzied, confessional lapel-grabber. Those who place Mahler among the first rank of composers tend to disdain the Eighth Symphony; for them, this is an unworthy, frivolous circus (Mahler himself reportedly said it was "very Barnum and Bailey"). I happen to love the piece -- it is, without a doubt, my favorite Mahler -- and I spent Friday evening in a state of sustained limbic bliss.

As conductor and artistic administrator, Levine has been the leading musical figure at the Metropolitan Opera for most of the past 30 years; not surprisingly, he led the symphony with acute dramatic intelligence. The "Faust" movement was built in an unbroken arc, from the murkily mysterious pluckings that start it all off through the meticulously calibrated, literally ground-shaking, long crescendo that brings it to a close.

The conductor, who has had some health issues recently, led from a chair, with few of the sweeping gestures that were once among his stocks in trade. Still, such was Levine's authority that one had the sense that nothing could take place on the Symphony Hall stage without his approval. A total of 327 sets of eyes were watching him intently for direction, and I haven't heard the BSO sound so good in years.

Of course, it wasn't just the BSO. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the American Boychoir and organist James David Christie gave their all. (The Symphony Hall organ, recently restored at a cost of $2 million, made a commanding comeback after several years of silence.) Among the vocal soloists, alto Yvonne Naef, with her haunting and loamy, deep voice, left perhaps the strongest impression, but she had some terrific company -- sopranos Jane Eaglen, Hei-Kyung Hong and Heidi Grant Murphy, fellow alto Stephanie Blythe, baritone Eike Wilm Schulte, bass John Relyea and the herculean tenor Ben Heppner, whose voice cut soulfully and brilliantly through the loudest orchestral swells. And the extraordinary immediacy of the acoustics at Symphony Hall made it the perfect showplace for a work of such complication.

Mahler called the symphony "so peculiar in content and form that it is really impossible to write anything about it." But then he went on to write about it very well. "Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound," he counseled a friend, the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg. "These are no longer human voices but planets and suns revolving."

And so it seemed Friday night.

James Levine led the BSO in an exuberant, richly detailed performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony Friday.James Levine, who is the BSO's 14th music director in 123 years, leads rehearsals Thursday.