at the Ravinia Festival

June 23, 24, 25, and 30, and July 1 and 2

Last month, James Levine opened his 17th season as Ravinia’s music director. It seems like yesterday that this unknown, bushy-haired wunderkind from Cleveland was jumping in at a few days’ notice for an indisposed Istvan Kertesz. The rest, as they say, is history.

We have since learned to share Levine with New York’s Metropolitan Opera (where he has been music director since 1976) and the major podiums and opera houses of the world. Given the game of musical chairs currently being played in the music world, it seems inevitable that his glory days at Ravinia will soon be coming to an end (he is the most obvious candidate to replace Herbert von Karajan in Berlin). In fact, this year’s residency at Ravinia–two weeks of concerts–is an all-time low for Levine, who seems to be following in Solti’s steps as an absentee landlord. (Last year Levine was here for only two weeks as well, but the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was playing in New York with Leonard Bernstein during what was always Ravinia’s opening weekend. That meant that both Levine and the CSO lost a week at Ravinia.) Ravinia management claims that next year Levine will resume a three-week, nine-concert season, but anything seems possible between then and now.

This is the first year I can recall that Levine did not appear as a pianist, which is a real shame given that he’s such a brilliant performer. His six CSO concerts each had a different repertoire, an amazing feat when one considers the fact that Ravinia rehearsal time is the same per week as Orchestra Hall rehearsal time: the orchestra usually plays three concerts a week year-round, but whereas each Ravinia concert features new repertoire, Orchestra Hall repertoire is repeated three or four times in a given week. So at Ravinia, three times the repertoire is rehearsed in the same amount of time.

What is doubly amazing is that even with those limitations, the results–at least for Levine–are often far more polished and imaginative than what is heard downtown. (For those wondering why Levine isn’t succeeding Solti, since he can do more in one rehearsal than Daniel Barenboim can do in three, the reasons are purely political. The Orchestral Association and the Ravinia Festival are two quite separate managerial entities. Levine cannot appear at Orchestra Hall without permission of Ravinia management, and present CSO management would wait for hell to freeze over before asking for such permission.)

The repertoire covered during Levine’s first weekend was the Verdi Requiem for the Friday night gala opening (with vocal soloists Andrea Gruber, Tatiana Troyanos, Gary Lakes, and Samuel Ramey), the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra and Holst’s The Planets on Saturday, and the Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Bartok’s Music for String Instruments, Percussion, and Celesta, and the Brahms Piano Concerto no. 1 (with soloist Stephen Hough) on Sunday.

The following Friday featured two choral works, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Orff’s Carmina Burana (with vocal soloists Hei-Kyung Hong, Philip Creech, and Thomas Hampson), while Saturday brought the magnificent Mahler Symphony no. 3 (with mezzo-soprano Birgitta Svenden). Levine’s residency concluded that Sunday with Berlioz’s Harold in Italy (with violist Michael Ouzounian), the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto no. 2 (with Andre Watts), and the second series of orchestral fragments from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe.

Although Verdi completed and arranged for the first performance of the Requiem as a memorial to the Italian writer Manzoni, he had already started composing a requiem mass on the occasion of the death of Rossini, for which he completed only one section, the final text of the mass, the Libera me (“deliver me”). When prodded by a critic and his publisher, Verdi proceeded even further with the work. His grief at Manzoni’s death–a man whom he had met only once, but whom he literally worshiped because of the power and beauty of his writings–was so profound that he needed to express it in music. This was a welcome surprise for his public, for after a 30-year, 25-opera career, the 61-year-old Verdi had been silent for two years (since Aida). A public concert to premiere the Requiem was planned in Manzoni’s hometown of Milan on the first anniversary of his death. Tickets were hot, the demand two-and-a-half times what the Church of San Marco could accommodate.

That first performance began a controversy that still surrounds the work every time it is performed–whether in a sacred or a secular setting. It was probably best summed up by conductor Hans von Bulow’s initial judgment of the piece: “Verdi’s latest opera in ecclesiastical dress.” Though von Bulow later reversed his opinion, there is a great deal of truth in his remark. Composers had been setting requiem masses to music since the Middle Ages, but none before Verdi, not even Mozart, had made such a glaring personal statement through the medium.

Verdi’s genre was opera, and it was that expertise on which he drew for the Requiem. It creates a theatrical world of tension, drama, and color that, together with the huge forces necessary to the work, make its use within an actual mass not only impractical but inappropriate. Yet, given the work’s sacred text and religious conviction, it’s not really an opera, either. Perhaps Ravinia is the perfect spot for such a piece. Years ago, a priest friend of mine gazed across the hushed, candlelit Ravinia grounds at twilight and remarked that Ravinia would make the perfect “secular church.”

Everyone involved in this performance of the Requiem–soloists, orchestra, chorus, conductor–was absolutely first-rate, not only in reputation but in actual performance. One could not imagine a more masterful Verdi conductor than Levine, one of only a handful of conductors equally at home in the opera house and on the concert stage. The rain that had poured down that day had subsided, but thunder still rolled in under Levine’s command during one of the most powerful and terrifying performances of the Dies irae I’ve ever experienced. It formed a wonderful contrast with his reverent, almost tearful reading of the Introit. Levine kept magnificent control throughout the work, always drawing maximum drama and effect from the score. The Chicago Symphony Chorus has seldom sounded better; its diction was perfect, its array of vocal color nothing short of amazing.

The Verdi Requiem is a piece for big voices, and luckily those were exactly what were on hand. Although soprano Andrea Gruber was making her professional debut, one would never have guessed it from the quality of her performance; she sang the familiar lines as though they had been written for her. A member of the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artists Program, she has a beautiful and open timbre, and her projection is excellent, although her power is slightly diminished in the lower register. She could sing high notes very softly, with full body, yet she could also cut through the CSO brass. She is a find, the latest in a long list of Levine-discovered divas.

Veteran mezzo-soprano Tatiana Troyanos was unfortunately not in her best voice that night. Although she put considerable feeling and expression into her performance, she was not projecting well; and her tone lacked its usual luster. Announced tenor Neil Shicoff was indisposed, but heldentenor extraordinaire Gary Lakes was able to fill in (another tremendous advantage in Ravinia’s music director being also artistic director of the Met). Lakes not only has a magnificent, clean, and open tenor sound, his voice is huge. What more could you ask for? His initial entrance in the Kyrie was positively thrilling. And who better to fill in the bottom end than superstar bass Samuel Ramey? Ramey was in splendid voice, and his low intonation of “Requiem aeternam” in the Lux aeterna, answered by the low brass, was a chilling moment.

The next Friday’s pairing of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms with Orff’s Carmina Burana was a bit like showing Citizen Kane and The Three Stooges Meet Hercules on the same bill, but it did give the Chicago Symphony Chorus a chance to shine for an evening. It is interesting to speculate how significant Stravinsky would have been to 20th-century music if he were, like Orff, known basically for a single work. Even if that work had been Symphony of Psalms, I submit that he would still have been revered. Virtually every phrase is crammed with musical meaning and insight; the work plays to magnificent effect when given the level of performance it received from Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

In addition to giving Hitler one of his favorite pieces, Carl Orff is also well-known for having revolutionized the way music is taught to children. Apart from Carmina Burana’s indelible connection with Nazism (it premiered in Frankfurt during the late 30s under government sponsorship), it is a shabby, vulgar piece that strives for a loud emotionalism virtually devoid of musical content. Basically the lowbrow pop music of its day (it reminds me of today’s heavy metal–as relentless as it is meaningless), it continues to be popular with the lowest common denominator of “serious” music lovers. They would be better off listening to Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables; at least those don’t pretend to be high art.

The solo singing in the Orff ranged from the excellent (soprano Hei-Kyung Hong) to the fair (baritone Thomas Hampson) to the absurd (tenor Philip Creech). The only good thing that can be said this year of Creech’s annual Ravinia appearance, other than that he sang only one full number, is that he was finally given material worthy of his talents.

Of course, Levine first came to international prominence because of his unique affinity with Mahler, and it is always a stellar occasion when he conducts a Mahler symphony–particularly with the CSO and Chicago Symphony Chorus, the best providers of the color and drama his approach demands. Levine had not conducted the Mahler Third here in ten years, so it was long overdue. (Levine’s CSO recording of the Third with soloist Marilyn Horne from the first year of his Ravinia directorship is still very much available, and still holds up magnificently after all these years.) The only interim downtown performance was given by Solti in the early 80s, just prior to his recording of the work.

What is so fascinating is that two conductors can have such completely different yet effective approaches, and with the same orchestra. Solti is dynamic with Mahler, moving relentlessly from one climax to the next, emphasizing conflict and tension. There is great drama in Levine’s Mahler as well, but he always lets the music linger in a more Viennese style, with greater emphasis on line and transparency of texture.

I cannot remember having heard the final adagio of the Third done so lyrically and effortlessly as in Levine’s recent account. Every phrase, every line, every nuance was crystal-clear, propelled by an incredible rhythmic effortlessness. The CSO strings have never sounded so beautiful; the cellos in particular were glorious.

Not that this account was without its flaws. The CSO brass, usually a musical anchor, had some problems. There were blaring horn flubs and trumpets gasping for high notes in the first movement. The low brasses, in particular the solo bass trombone, had no subtlety at all. Still, Adolph Herseth’s beautiful offstage trumpeting in the third movement was superb, as were the women of the Chicago Symphony Chorus and the Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus for their brief but critical entrance in the fifth movement. Swedish mezzo-soprano Birgitta Svenden, who sang in Levine’s “Ring” at the Met this year, sang the fourth movement very effectively, maintaining beautiful tone, clear diction, and good projection.

The most annoying thing about this performance was the decision to break up the symphony with an intermission. Granted, the Third is a long work, but to divide it up like that removes all sense of Mahler’s total architecture. To have such a storm of clapping at the end of the long first movement was distracting and distasteful. The pause that Mahler intended at the end of that movement was for contemplation, not for cheering and then running out for popcorn. I hope this doesn’t begin a trend. (The Verdi Requiem, I am happy to report, was not interrupted.)

Bartok’s most important orchestral scores–the Concerto for Orchestra and Music for String Instruments, Percussion, and Celesta–were both led by Levine in preparation for recording sessions the following week for Deutsche Grammophon; although, given Levine’s weaknesses in performing this repertoire, I cannot imagine what market is intended. It’s not that Levine ran into any real trouble with these works: he adequately solved most of the technical problems (no small feat, by the way–I am reminded of how severely CSO associate conductor Kenneth Jean fell on his face trying to keep Music for String Instruments together last January in Solti’s absence). But they lacked imagination, something Levine usually offers in abundance. Both these works were conducted earlier this season by Solti, Bartok’s greatest living interpreter, and the CSO is presently doing a large retrospective on Bartok downtown. I love these works, and was willing to miss most of Grant Park’s opening to hear them; but programming that completely ignores downtown repertoire is ludicrous. If Levine had something unique to say about these works, that might be one thing. But even if he had, twice in the same season is a bit much.

I had much the same feeling about Levine’s account of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments. It seemed perfunctory, and lacked the spice and “screaming” quality that Pierre Boulez brought to the work less than two years ago downtown. Why do it again so soon?

Levine’s other big CSO recording project this summer was Gustav Holst’s The Planets, which is colorful but musically uninteresting and usually very boring in performance. Levine really surprised me, however, by taking some very familiar music and doing all kinds of new and interesting things with it. Seldom has “Mars” been so exciting, owing much to Levine’s buildup and fast tempo. The war theme of “Mars” contrasted nicely with the peace theme of “Venus” and its gentle, transparent sound. There was a wonderful variety of tempi, dynamic contrasts, and moods throughout the suite, always allowing the work’s most interesting features to shine through. If the recording is anything like the performance, it should be spectacular indeed.

Ravel’s second series of orchestral fragments from his ballet Daphnis et Chloe was also given very effective treatment in Levine’s hands. He never allowed the CSO brass to overpower (something Solti almost always does with French music) and got a remarkably sweet, delicate, never harsh, sound from the CSO strings and winds.

Although Levine kept Ravel’s colors gentle and smooth, he wasn’t afraid to release the full brilliance of Berlioz in Harold in Italy, a very different kind of French music. The Met’s principal violist, Michael Ouzounian, was the soloist for this sequel to the more famous and more interesting Symphonie fantastique. Harold began as a commission from Paganini to show off his recently acquired Stradivarius viola. Paganini himself never performed the piece (“Too many rests”), even though he ended up liking the work once he actually heard it performed. Ouzounian did an impressive job with the score, never falling into the syrupy sentimentality so prevalent among its interpreters. His tone was pure and open, with a small vibrato, and his phrasing was always quite pleasing and musical.

The two piano concerti that were performed, the Brahms First by Stephen Hough and the Saint-Saens Second by Andre Watts, offered a bizarre study in contrasts. I cannot remember a professional pianist who brought as little to the Brahms as Hough did, either technically or musically. Hough was simply in way over his head, seemingly overanxious throughout the performance, which made for missed notes, sloppy runs, and a very harsh tone. Things calmed down for a bit for the slow movement; but by the time he began the finale, problems again abounded. One had to feel for young Hough, for Brahms can clearly separate the men from the boys; Levine’s accompaniment was largely perfunctory, and there was little dialogue between conductor and soloist.

Why Hough was given the meaty Brahms First and Andre Watts, one of the most sensitive pianists in the universe, was given the trivial Saint-Saens Second Piano Concerto is one of the mysteries of arts management. Clearly their repertoire should have been reversed. As it was, Watts was able to show off a bit during the Saint-Saens, tossing off its mindless but difficult runs like child’s play. And as a brilliant performer can always do, he made mediocre music sound great. Levine and the orchestra got into the spirit, taking their cues from Watts. The audience gave him an instant standing ovation. Yes, Watts earned his check and the audience was happy; but when you have a first-rate artist, it’s a shame to throw him second-rate material. If this is the best Ravinia can offer him, Watts might as well go back to headlining “Taste of Chicago.”