Gazing at the northern sky of Saturday night was like staring into a Dante-esque abyss of pitch-black clouds and grim lightening. There was an area under a bridge on Lake Cook Road that was a veritable lake, and several cars were caught in its fearsome clutches. The trials were of Herculean stature, yet my dad and I managed, somehow, to make it to The Ravinia Festival in Highland Park relatively unscathed.
And what event, you might ask, was so important that you risked life, limb, and wet socks to attend it? My answer is short, simple, and powerful: James Damn Levine, that's why!
The man was Musical Director of The Metropolitan Opera for 40 years and changed what had once been a musically-adequate, yet slacking, group and turned them into a world-class ensemble. And, after 23 years of absence, he was to lead The Chicago Symphony in the work that he made his Ravinia with in 1971: Mahler's Second Symphony, aptly nicknamed the "Resurrection." The work is gargantuan, involving a full orchestra with numerous soli, as well as an offstage ensemble, full chorus, soprano and alto soloists, and the conductor himself.
Levine was the first person I ever saw conduct an opera, yet I had not seen him in person until this event. How is that possible, you may ask? When I was discovering my love of opera, I went to the library and clutched my hands on a VHS (God, doesn't that word bring back memories?) of The Metropolitan Opera's production of Mozart's Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute.) Granted, I didn't notice the bushy-haired conductor at first, as I was enthralled by the on-stage performers but, as the years went by, I started to notice the subtle mystique of the conductor and treasured Levine's many recordings, broadcasts, and more.
When the schedule for Ravinia was released this year, my little eyes bulged as I saw that Levine would be returning to Ravinia, after such a long absence. After I had purchased the tickets, Levine announced that he would step down from his post at The Met in the next few years. My soul wept for the loss this was to the biggest opera company in the United States, but knew that Jimmy wouldn't be hanging up his baton.
Saturday night, in terms of weather, was nearly a disaster. The rain was thick, the wind was just south of vicious, and murky humidity made for a simply brilliant bonus treat. As I walked into the arches of the festival grounds, I noticed a copious amount of lawn-dwellers leaving with bag, and sack, and basket (to quote Tennyson), fleeing from the premises as fast as their feet could take them. I plowed onward, determined to see Mr. Levine raise his battle baton, or go down with the ship. If I had to die, I could certainly do it in less grand surroundings than Ravinia with Levine conducting Mahler. I was willing to take that risk.
Oddly, underneath the pavilion, the weather was exceedingly pleasant. People were wet but, happily, it hadn't rained on their spirits. The Women's Gala crowd trounced into the first rows, their hair slightly askew and dresses akimbo, but delighted that the event was not a total washout. Despite the weather, the pavilion was nearly full. The concert started promptly at 7, the weather thankfully not stopping the clock. The most brilliant rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner opened the concert, with full orchestra, chorus, and the periodically delightful clang of real cymbals.
The audience took a collective intake of air, waiting for the maestro to make his entrance. Without much ado, Levine came gliding onto the stage in his mechanized wheelchair, the entire audience rising to their feet and applauding with the most sincere praise I had ever seen lavished on a conductor.
Levine is not only a brilliant conductor because he has such an intelligent grasp of the repertoire, but also because his subtle hand motions, mouth manipulation, and even posture radiates information with perfect clarity. The conductor's baton is not a toy to be wielded with a limp wrist and only a basic grasp of the notes in front of him. A good conductor will lead a good performance, but a great one will ascend it to the heights of Valhalla. He is also an old pro at the unique and humorous trappings of Ravinia, including the squeal of the train whistle in between the first and second movements.
The 2nd symphony itself is in five movements. Without going into too much detail, the individual movements portray the following:
1. The death of a hero, and his journey into death itself. It is the crying of the soul, which gives the movement its bone-chilling title "Totenfeier" or "Fire of Death."
2. A moment in the past life of the hero, one of love and pure contentment.
3. A bouncy number in 3/8 time, reminiscent of the baroque dancelike instrumental Siciliana, which is a piece constructed to depict a pastoral setting. The movement is a juxtaposition of the hero's life and the lives of the mourners around his grave and their departure back to the world, hiding their grief amid a sea of smiling faces.
4. A short ode for solo alto, a meditation for the coming resurrection of the dead.
5. The final moments of terror, a brief respite, and the ringing raising of the dead in a tornado of joy and religious fervor, the chorus and soloists shouting that death has been put to shame.
Mahler's 2nd is a gargantuan affair, and Levine's reading was grand, yet exquisitely intimate. Mahler wrote his symphonies with a decadent juxtaposition of thrilling climaxes and chamber music-like intimate moments, where all but a few players are participating within the middle of each movement. Each of the brass and woodwinds get their moment to shine, as well as percussion, harps, and offstage brass who traipsed on and off with aplomb. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus are melded with steel and ornament with silk, their sound at times seeming to rip the very fabric of artistic existence. The raw power of Karen Cargill, the alto soloist, and the pure majesty of Ying Fang, the soprano, were like a handsome, hand-painted bridal pair on top of an already exquisite gourmet cake. The result, both literally and figuratively, was thunderous.
The most touching picture of the evening was something that wasn't being presented on stage. Throughout the performance, I was treated to a little girl of about five or six, watching with wide-eyed awe at the spectacle before her. Her mother helped her consult the program when she was lost, showed her which soloist was which, what the translation of the sung texts were and more. The girl, in turn, was entranced by the proceedings. Hearing the music of Mahler has an almost religious effect on people, and they seldom look at the concept of a symphony in the same way afterward. This girl was in the enviable position of hearing this glorious piece for the first time and her joy was palpable. It reminded me of hearing Mozart for the first time aged 10 and being hooked. I hope this little girl will continue to listen to, if not perform, this music that heals the soul and, in the midst of a w0rld in chaos.
I hope this little girl will continue to listen to, if not perform, this music that heals the soul. In the midst of a w0rld in chaos, fraught with murder and ill will, music will be the torch-bearer of enlightenment, as it has been for generations.
Music is the balm that will heal the wounds of violence and hatred, if we only choose to embody its message in our lives.
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