at Ravinia Festival

June 22 and 23

Last year’s Ravinia opening was fraught with speculation that it could well be the last for the festival’s music director, James Levine, who was said to be heading to Berlin to succeed the retiring Herbert von Karajan. How things can change in a year. Von Karajan died, and Claudio Abbado, whom the CSO foolishly passed over in choosing Solti’s successor, was quickly picked up by the Berliners.

Levine subsequently signed a new three-year Ravinia contract, and, after two years of conducting only six concerts a season here, his past arrangement of conducting nine concerts a season was restored. Then Edward Gordon, Ravinia’s executive director for 22 years and the man who plucked the unknown Levine from obscurity 20 years ago and set him on the path that would make his name a household word, announced that he was leaving the festival he had so lovingly and carefully developed.

So opening night was bittersweet this year as well. The end of the Gordon era was marked with the piece of music that had first brought Levine here as a last-minute substitute for an ailing Eugene Ormandy: the monumental Mahler Resurrection Symphony (no. 2). There is probably no piece more associated with Levine’s Ravinia legacy than the Mahler Second; I distinctly remember him performing the work here twice before. The first time was when I was a music student; I sat on one of the benches along the pavilion sides, which people came hours early to fight over (they didn’t charge extra for them in those days). I was always stunned by the piece and by Levine’s unique affinity for Mahler.

Levine’s approach to the Mahler Second has become more introspective over the years, and his tempi have slowed down considerably, sometimes almost to a Bruno Walter speed. The deeper insights into the piece are welcome, though the slower tempi often are not; I honestly feel that many of his former insights were more effective and helped stamp the piece with a unique personality. His interpretation is still unique, but it is less distinguishable from those of some of his colleagues (much like his interpretation of the Mahler Third last season). The brash, youthful exuberance of Levine’s earlier Mahler has largely disappeared now that he’s reaching middle age. It’s still a glorious approach, but it speaks to me a little less.

The fact that opening night was one of the coldest and wettest in the festival’s history spoiled player and audience concentration and wreaked havoc with the instruments of the orchestra. Concertmaster Ruben Gonzalez’s solos came in under pitch from the opening movement, and by the second movement virtually all of the first violins sounded flat; soon many of the winds and even the timpani joined them. By the finale the flute and trumpet were a good quarter tone apart in a crucial dialogue. Player ensembling was often ragged; there were unclean cutoffs; and several crucial trumpet and horn phrases were tentative and choppy. At times the crackling storm was so distracting that listening to many of the work’s quietist sections was like listening through the static of an old 78 record. The contrast between the dreary night and Mahler’s portrayals of the Viennese countryside was stark. Still, the victory were ultimately one of art over nature, and the scope and intention of Mahler’s monumental masterpiece were triumphant.

Having heard Klaus Tennstedt perform the Mahler First and Fourth here with the CSO so recently, I was immediately reminded of the enormous difference between his approach and Levine’s. Tennstedt brought a glorious Viennese string sound to the often coarse CSO strings and gave their playing a light lilt. Levine prefers a more heavy-handed approach; his emphasis was on structural detail and overall musical architecture. If Tennstedt’s individual Mahlerian details were more colorful and interesting, Levine compensated by making every change in the score mean something in terms of the overall direction of the work.

Mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar gave an expressive account of the celestial fourth-movement text with her dark, rich color, but her large vibrato often obscured her pitch. It seemed a shame to bring in former Chicagoan and current soprano sensation Dawn Upshaw just for those few “rising” phrases in the heavenly finale, but her presence ensured that those crucial passages were firm and spectacular. The real stars of the performance were, not surprisingly, Margaret Hillis’s glorious choristers, with their tight ensembling, beautifully balanced sound, and superb diction–their quiet, hushed entrance was enormously effective and beautiful (even though they were sitting down, which does cut off some control). Yet they could also spin thunder with ease. I doubt there is another chorus in the world that could do a more convincing job with this piece.

By Saturday the rain and wind were gone, though it was still surprisingly cold for the second concert of the festival. The program began with the CSO’s first performance of Mozart’s Symphony no. 4 in D Major (K. 19), the product of a visit to England when he was eight years old and of his initial contact with the music of Johann Christian Bach. It’s a well-crafted but voiceless work that doesn’t indicate in the least the direction the later Mozart would take. (Still, how many symphonies are there by eight-year-olds?) Levine employed a large, often ragged string orchestra, with pairs of oboes and horns that were totally lost in the sea of string sound. He also favored a slow, stodgy, Romantic approach, incorporating little 18th-century style or energy. This was strictly sight-reading.

The highlight of the evening–probably the highlight of the Ravinia weekend–came from a superbly crafted Levine-CSO performance of Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra (op. 6), which was heard downtown under Claudio Abbado for the Berg centenary five years ago. Because of Berg’s later close association with 12-tone music, this work is rarely performed. Which is a pity, for the music is much more lyrical and melodic than many of Berg’s strictly 12-tone pieces, caught as it is between the sound world of late Romanticism and that of the 12-tone school. This was no perfunctory performance; Levine had obviously paid considerable attention to detail in working out the piece with the orchestra. The ensembling and tuning problems that had so marred opening night were nowhere to be found–these were virtuosic performances.

The big attraction of the evening was Itzhak Perlman performing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, which unfortunately was given a rather banal reading. Perlman’s performance was quite conservative and much too slow for my taste, allowing for little of the excitement that can infuse this frivolous but potentially fun piece (at Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg’s performance here a few seasons ago the members of the audience were on the edge of their seats for the entire piece). Perlman’s tone was as full-bodied and gorgeous as ever, but he took none of the chances he had taken with his stellar Brahms performances last fall. He brought a certain lightness to the finale and created some glowing moments, but all in all this was pretty routine stuff and certainly not up to the level of excellence one has come to expect from this superb artist.

Since the entire evening of music clocked in at just over an hour, not including intermission, a Perlman encore of Saint-Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso had been worked out. Perlman finally came to life projecting the Spanish dance rhythms and syncopation of this corny old warhorse and made it sound as fresh as ever. Levine and the CSO convincingly went along for the ride.