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James Levine and CSO soar in Mahler’s monumental ‘Symphony No. 2’

James Levine leads in July 2016 conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler's "Symphony No. 2" at the Ravinia Festival. | Russell Jenkins/Ravinia Festival

The Ravinia Festival’s gala on Saturday turned out to be an even more wildly theatrical event on all fronts than its planners could have imagined.

First came the deluge. a torrential thunderstorm that flooded the lawn (and sadly wiped out the expected overflow audience of picnickers), but did nothing to keep the elaborately dressed Pavilion ticket-holders from making it to their seats. After all, this was the most anticipated concert of the summer season — an evening designed to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s annual residency in the park, as well as the return (for the first time in 23 years) of conductor James Levine leading the CSO in Gustav Mahler’s monumental “Symphony No. 2.”

That was the same work for which he won great acclaim 45 years ago when, at the age of 28, he stepped in at the last minute for an ailing maestro — a feat that subsequently led to his being named music director of the Ravinia Festival, a post he held for two decades, from 1973-1993.

With the CSO orchestra and chorus packing the stage, Levine (now 73, and suffering from Parkinson’s disease and other health problems) arrived in his motorized wheelchair and moved up the the ramp of a specially constructed podium just as the storm, as if by divine intervention, temporarily subsided. It seemed that Mahler’s symphony, dubbed “The Resurrection,” was determined to live up to its name.

For its 80th anniversary gala, James Levine conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Mahler’s “Symphony No. 2.” (Photo: Patrick Gipson/Ravinia Festival)
For its 80th anniversary gala, James Levine conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Mahler’s “Symphony No. 2.” (Photo: Patrick Gipson/Ravinia Festival)

In an introductory video about Levine, one of the interview subjects noted that some conductors scare their musicians into doing what they want while others, like Levine, just make them want to please their leader. The CSO, which is currently in divine shape, clearly wanted to celebrate the man before them, and he, in turn, beamed with admiration for the massive body of artists arrayed on the stage. And together — from the agitated sound of violins and cellos that opens Mahler’s ravishing 90-minute masterwork (composed between 1888 and 1894), through the percussive storms; haunting melodies; distant horns; ravishing riffs for flute, clarinet and harp; evocative bells, and a massing of voices sometimes hushed (and a cappella) and sometimes surging — they captured the full power, enchantment and breathtaking beauty of this magnificently stormy, exquisitely lyrical and ultimately transcendent work.

This is a symphony of immense complexity and variety, with magical shifts of mood from the most playful to the most violent and clamorous that possess an almost cinematic quality. Mahler was a master colorist who tapped every section of the orchestra. And the video screens at Ravinia that home in on the musicians at various points neatly showcased each of them: the French horns in a far-off awakening alternately ominous and triumphant, the pounding timpani, the strings (sometimes plucked, sometimes with an eerie vibration of the bow) launching into dance-like melodies that make the heart sing but also suggest the macabre at moments, the subtle marches, the clarinets with just a hint of klezmer-like energy.

Mahler, from a German-speaking Jewish family, was raised in the Bohemian part of the Austrian Empire but “converted” to Christianity in order not to be barred from a professional post at the official opera house. Listening to this symphony (and the text for the work’s fifth movement, much of it written by the composer himself), it is clear that his sense of the spiritual was less doctrinaire than a quest for some grand connection with the cycle of life and death — a search by the human imagination that is forever seeking an answer to the question: What exists beyond the grave?

In the work’s fourth movement, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill used her fluid, honey-toned voice to beautiful effect in the poem “Primal Light.” And she, along with soprano Ying Fang and the massive CSO chorus, brought formidable passion to the final movement’s Resurrection.

Levine’s fervor was visible in his face, in the little suggestions of his long, graceful fingers, and in his obvious sense that this orchestra was in perfect unity with both him and Mahler.

It was Plato who observed: “Man’s music is seen as a means of restoring the soul, as well as confused and discordant bodily afflictions, to the harmonic proportions that it shares with the world soul of the cosmos.” Levine’s glorious journey with Mahler and the CSO could not have offered finer proof that this is the case.