By Lawrence B. Johnson
HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — The air was positively charged as conductor James Levine prepared to make his homecoming entrance at the Ravinia Festival, his first appearance since he had stepped down as music director 23 years ago.
On a stormy July 23 night, the festival pavilion was packed. But before Levine appeared in the flesh to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor (Resurrection), a video displayed on giant screens harkened back to the conductor’s prodigious, ebullient youth in the 1970s. As various testimonial voice-overs recalled the conductor’s great promise, a dominant theme emerged: the youthful Levine had not only dazzled the orchestra with his brilliance but also amazed everyone with his boundless energy
Now he was back, 73 years old, virtually confined to his powered chair, his great puff of hair turned gray. What’s more, his arrival had been preceded by accounts of shaky hands that made his once fluid beat difficult to follow. But on this night, from somewhere, Levine summoned something like that early vitality. During a Mahler Second that was by turns eruptive, languid, and soaring, close-up images of the conductor on the big screens showed a right-hand beat that was clear and precise, a left hand no less certain in its expressive emphasis. To the end of Mahler’s epic-length symphony, Levine was completely in control.
The Mahler Second closed a special circle in Levine’s august career. It was with Mahler’s formidable symphony that he made his emergency debut at Ravinia 45 years ago.
Levine was little known when at age 27 he was called upon as the desperation choice to stand in for not one but two eminent conductors, Eugene Ormandy and István Kertész, who one after the other had to withdraw from that Mahler Second performance in the summer of 1971.
Just two months before his sudden appearance at Ravinia, Levine had made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera. Both introductions sparked stunning ascents. Within two years, he was named music director at Ravinia, and in 1976 he was elevated to the same position at the Met. He held the latter post for four decades, until health issues forced him to step down earlier this year.
When Levine resigned as Ravinia’s music director in 1993, he said he hoped to return in a guest role as soon as the mounting obligations of his career might permit. No one could have known that next date would be deferred for more than two decades.
The year following his Met and Ravinia debuts, the rocketing conductor bowed for the first time with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and that connection also eventually led to his being named music director, effective with the 2004-05 season.
A variety of serious health issues led Levine to end his directorships at both the Met and the Boston Symphony. He now gets around in that motorized chair, from which he also conducts, and when he scooted up the ramp to an elevated platform created for him at Ravinia, the pavilion audience stood to deliver a roaring welcome. Levine beamed, mouthing the words, “Thank you very much.”
My guess is he could have conducted with his eyes alone, so thoroughly internalized was this radiant traversal of the Second Symphony. After a dramatically charged opening movement that blended lyrical reflection with sheer ferocity — and after the interval of several minutes that Mahler specifies at the end of that expansive first chapter — Levine took the ensuing slow movement at a pace more suggestive of cosmic time than of earthly measure. It was exquisite. The CSO sustained Levine’s delicate lines without a hint of stress, conjuring music of other spheres.
Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill’s arresting performance of the “Urlicht,” a song of untrammeled faith that prefaces the finale’s Resurrection, was not only magnetic in its expressive conviction but also vocally glorious. There were only two images that induced me to shift my gaze from the stage to the on-screen displays: the intimate shots of Levine and Cargill. In the second solo role, soprano Ying Fang produced a lovely sound, albeit on a rather small scale.
The symphony’s grandiose finale brings in the chorus for the first time to sing the hymn “Aufersteh’n” (“Arise, yes, you will rise again, my dust, after a brief rest!”). It mirrors the conclusion of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and Levine’s patient construction evoked that same transporting effect, a hurtling of the spirit into the empyrean. The CSO Chorus, prepared with characteristic exactitude by Duain Wolfe, managed a thrilling dynamic arc from bare audibility to heaven-storming affirmation.
Thus ended the return of James Levine to Ravinia — except for the noisy coda of a cheering throng thrilled to be once more in the presence of their adored scion. And he blew the love right back.
Lawrence B. Johnson, editor of the performing arts web magazine Chicago On the Aisle, was for many years music critic for The Detroit News and has written for The New York Times as well as several music magazines.