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James Levine’s return fulfills a determined quest at Ravinia

James Levine | Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Unscheduled drama has erupted at the Ravinia Festival’s annual benefit concerts over the years.

In 1999 an unknown teenager from China took the stage as a last-minute substitute for an ailing soloist, pianist Andre Watts. His performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra electrified the massive audience that filled every corner of Ravinia’s pavilion and vast lawn. That night launched the 17-year-old Lang Lang as a musical superstar.

The drama was even more spectacular at Ravinia’s annual benefit in 1971. Not one but two conductors had bowed out of the CSO’s performance of Mahler’s stirring Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”). With time running short, the festival’s executive director, Edward Gordon, invited an American conductor named James Levine — then in his 20s and best known as assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra and a protégé of George Szell, Cleveland’s legendary music director — to the podium. As Gordon told the story, midway through the concert he called Levine’s management to discuss the young conductor’s future. In 1973 Levine became Ravinia’s music director, a post he held with distinction for the next two decades.

This year’s annual Ravinia benefit concert, at 7 p.m. Saturday, has plenty of drama already built in. For the first time since 1993, Levine is returning to the festival’s podium. And he will lead the CSO and the Chicago Symphony Chorus and vocal soloists in the “Resurrection” Symphony, the work that launched his Ravinia odyssey 45 years ago.

With luck, the drama will not include last-minute podium shuffles. Now 73, Levine suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and his health has caused him to cancel concerts in recent years. In June he stepped down as music director of the Metropolitan Opera, a post he held for 40 years, to become music director emeritus. Chicago music lovers have worried that ill health might derail his return to Ravinia, but according to Welz Kauffman, the festival’s president and CEO, Levine is in Chicago and all signs point to a gala concert as planned.

Kauffman has been courting Levine for a return visit for more than a decade.

“I like to think it started on Oct. 20, 2000, which was my first day at Ravinia,” said Kauffman with a laugh. “That’s when I started hammering his agent to see if there was any way we could entice him to come back. The Ravinia family really wanted to see him. It was nothing more than that, coupled with the fact that he’s one of the greatest conductors who’s ever lived.”

About two years ago, Kauffman said, his regularly scheduled calls to Levine’s management finally prompted a “maybe,” which eventually led to Saturday’s concert.

As Ravinia’s music director from 1973 through 1993, Levine presided over one of the 112-year-old venue’s most exciting eras. A formidable pianist as well as conductor, he seemed to be everywhere on Ravinia’s campus. He led the CSO and guest soloists in riveting evenings of full-length operas that included Mozart with Kiri Te Kanawa, Verdi with Beverly Sills and Leontyne Price, and Richard Strauss’s “Elektra” with Leonie Rysanek and Mignon Dunn. There were Mahler symphonies galore and massive, rarely performed works like Stravinsky’s “Les Noces,” Arnold Schoenberg’s “Gurrelieder” and Berlioz’s “Les Troyens.”

In one of Ravinia’s original buildings — the then-musty but charming Murray Theatre, now the no-longer-musty and charmingly renovated Martin Theatre — there were enthralling vocal recitals with Levine at the piano accompanying such stars as Te Kanawa, Price and Jessye Norman. At rehearsals, wearing a knit polo shirt, with a huge Turkish towel thrown over his shoulder and sporting what was then universally referred to as a Jewish Afro, Levine was the ringmaster of a highly sophisticated but nevertheless intoxicating, classical music three-ring circus.

James Levine rehearses in 1974. | Sun-Times File
James Levine rehearses in 1974. | Sun-Times File

It’s been 23 years since Levine’s last Ravinia appearance, but Kauffman credits him with a long-lasting impact on the festival. Levine’s constant use of the Murray Theatre for chamber music and vocal recitals prompted its renovation in 1992. And his interest in nurturing new generations of musicians led to the creation of Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute, an annual training program for promising musicians and singers established in 1988.

“He was into everything,” said Zarin Mehta, who succeeded Gordon as Ravinia’s executive director in 1990, serving in that post for 10 years. “He had a huge repertoire, and an ability to work in an extremely concentrated, quick manner and get what he wanted in no time at all.”

Given Ravinia’s limited rehearsal schedule, said Mehta, “that was necessary, and it was quite amazing.”

Levine conducted Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony at Ravinia’s annual benefit during Mehta’s first season as executive director in 1990.

“I remember there was a huge, huge rainstorm,” said Mehta. “I couldn’t believe how many people came and sat on the lawn, covered with wraps and umbrellas.”

If all goes well, neither rain nor ill health will keep Levine from his appointed rounds with the Ravinia Festival on Saturday night.

* Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, 7 p.m., July 23, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake-Cook roads, Highland Park. Pavilion, $25-$125 (virtually sold out), lawn $15. (847) 266-5100; Ravinia.org.

Wynne Delacoma a local freelance writer.