This weekend, as Chicagoans continued to celebrate the historic end to the 108-year Cubs victory drought, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) ended a nine-year James Levine drought. Well, almost. Aside from Levine’s appearance with the orchestra at the Ravinia Festival for Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony this past July, this weekend was his first downtown appearance with the CSO since 2005.
At Saturday evening’s performance, it was clear that audience members and musicians alike were thrilled to have this maestro back at the helm. Conducting from a custom-built podium to accommodate his motorized scooter, Levine led the orchestra in Mozart’s Paris Symphony, Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, and closed with a blazing, effusive Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz.
Levine’s rapport with Mozart is well known. He conducted the first-ever Met performances of Idomeneo and La Clemana de Tito, and his interpretation of Paris on Saturday demonstrated nothing but mastery. The work’s dramatic opening theme was treated with care: the bold opening chords expertly contrasted with the upper strings’ gentle response just measures later.
The real magic of the piece, however, came from the Andante. Levine kept the movement bright enough to truly consider it andante, a welcome respite from its tendency to drag. It was this moment that allayed any fears that had circulated around Levine’s conducting since a number of health issues forced him to step down last year from his 39-year tenure at the Met.
However, Levine consistently showed a level of expertise and control on Saturday. His attention to detail on the Schoenberg was impressive. Five Pieces for Orchestra—running the gamut of moods and forgoing much traditional tonality—was played both sensitively and exuberantly. At times the orchestra felt slightly timid, though. The CSO is not known for its love of modern music, and there were moments when I felt their tangible discomfort, notably during the movement entitled Summer Morning by a Lake (Colors). However, any hiccoughs or moments of shyness were very much compensated by the fact that the nuanced interpretation of this complex score allowed the musicians to demonstrate their most sensitive, energetic, and dissonant selves, all within 16 minutes.
The applause at the end of the evening was decidedly the longest and the most raucous that I have experienced at Symphony Center. This was undoubtedly because Saturday evening’s Symphonie Fantastique was stunning, the famous March to the Scaffold notably so. The movement’s famous opening theme in the cello and bass sections were dramatic, with players digging into their bows for the dry, full sound I had hoped for. Soloists throughout the piece were consistently excellent, with the percussion section excelling in the complex timpani parts that are a hallmark of this work.
If the title of the final movement, Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath, is any indication, Berlioz’s conclusion to this nearly hour-long marathon is nothing short of a frenzy. Notable contributors to said frenzy were the clarinet section, particularly the E-flat clarinet. John Bruce Yeh played the manic, witch-dancing solo with ease and an enthusiasm that had his section mate, principal Stephen Williamson, nodding his head with a sly smirk.
Saturday was E-flat clarinet at its most exciting, which is fitting, considering that Levine’s interpretation of Symphonie Fantastique was the CSO at its most exciting as well. When the piece came to a close, the house—sadly under-filled on Saturday—applauded long enough that Levine left the podium and returned back up the ramp three times. Each time he reached the top of the podium, he turned to the audience, hand on heart, acknowledging the musicians behind him, joy palpable. Welcome back to Chicago, Mr. Levine: I’m glad we did not have to wait 108 years to see you back at Symphony Center.