Levine and CSO ignite in conductor’s return to Orchestra Hall

Fri Nov 04, 2016 at 4:12 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

James Levine gives thumbs up to the audience at Thursday night's Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
James Levine gives a thumbs up to the audience at Thursday night’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

That makes two historic Chicago nights in a row.

Okay, so maybe the return of James Levine to make his belated Chicago Symphony Orchestra subscription debut Thursday night wasn’t quite as earthshaking as the Cubs’ World Series victory the previous evening. Yet by the end of the concert Levine’s return surely felt significant to those in the audience.

This concert was not Levine’s first CSO event since leaving the Metropolitan Opera earlier this year after four decades. Levine led a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 at Ravinia this past July. Yet despite its merits, that “Resurrection” performance had its unsettled moments, and was perhaps more notable as an emotional homecoming to the festival Levine helmed after a 22-year absence.

But the warmly communicative, boldly projected performances Levine led Thursday night brimmed with life and vitality, largely allaying concerns about his health and ability to conduct effectively with Parkinson’s disease. With a full week of rehearsal time, Thursday night’s concert provided confirmation that despite his illnesses and physical infirmity, Levine is still very much a podium force to be reckoned with.

Make that a platform force. With Levine now getting around on a motorized scooter, the CSO utilized a large enclosed platform for him with a 20-foot ramp–that effectively bisects the orchestra in two–allowing the conductor to enter from the back and ride unassisted to the top of the platform.

Entrances and exits became curiously captivating, a kind of mechanized ritual. Levine slowly wheels up the long ramp and to the podium, acknowledges applause and turns to conduct; a stagehand brings out his music and stand and fastens it in front of him. After a work is performed, the stand is removed, he rolls down the ramp to exit, and the ceremony is repeated for the next work. We won’t even get into the removal of Levine’s side table.

It’s too bad that the audience didn’t give the conductor  a more respectful atmosphere for his first downtown CSO stand in 11 years. We seem to be entering a new era of bad audience behavior in Chicago, with at least three separate cell phone disturbances Thursday and more loud and unmuffled coughing than in a tuberculosis ward.

Levine elected to replace the originally scheduled leadoff item of Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale with Mozart’s “Paris” symphony (No. 31). That was a wise move since this Mozart symphony, astoundingly, has not been played by the orchestra downtown in 44 years (under Henry Mazer). 

Levine remains a master Mozartian in the concert hall as much as the opera house, having recorded the composer’s complete symphonies for DG. His style did feel a bit big-boned and old-fashioned in the central Andante, lacking something in dynamic nuance and lyric charm. Yet the outer movements brimmed with vitality and exuberance with the orchestra throwing off this grandest of early Mozart symphonies with  all due brilliance and virtuosity.

The CSO gave the American premiere of Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra under Frederick Stock in 1913 (also the first performance of any Schoenberg orchestral music in the U.S.). It’s surprising that such a seminal work has not been performed by the CSO in 12 years.

Levine has long been an advocate of 20th-century “modernists,” especially music of the Second Viennese School.  If there were any lingering doubts about Levine’s ability to direct a complex score, the punchy, richly layered performances he drew in this chromatic, aphoristic music was impressive indeed.

Scored for huge forces, Schoenberg’s Five Pieces are like broken shards of Late Romanticism. The framing sections were daunting in their violent upheaval, with satiric, pounding march rhythms, snarling muted brass and rifle-shot timpani. The pensive interlude of the second was just as surely conveyed with its strangely guileless celeste solo. The third piece was the most “approachable” to contemporary audiences and Levine and the players sustained the harmonically untethered mystery and introspection.  There was unbridled playing of great expressive force and sonic impact by the CSO players, brass and percussion especially.

Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is a better-known quantity, and has long been a Levine specialty. What was most striking about this performance was the uncommon freshness and endearing quality he brought to the music-making. The shifting tempos leading up to the motto theme in the opening movement were shaped with great skill and a supple touch. Perhaps “Le bal” was more forthright than elegant, and lacked something in dynamic subtlety. Yet there was a wonderful “singing” quality to the playing, the wind solos in particular.

Unfortunately, the duet for oboe and English horn that opens the third movement was largely ruined–at least in the right lower balcony– by an elderly man obliviously fussing with velcro, though Scott Hostetler’s English horn sounded the right final, forlorn note.

Berlioz’s theatrical moments were just as well served, with the “March to the Scaffold” thrown off with brassy swagger and starkly brawny tuttis. The tumult of the finale has rarely sounded more Dionysian or unhinged, Levine building cumulative momentum to a blazing and thrilling coda.

Several curtain calls and acknowledgments by Levine to various sections and solo players led to a rare but timely encore, with Levine leading the orchestra in–you guessed it– “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in honor of the victorious Cubs.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. cso.org; 312-284-3000.

Posted in Performances

7 Responses to “Levine and CSO ignite in conductor’s return to Orchestra Hall”

  1. Posted Nov 04, 2016 at 5:51 pm by Gerry Ahrens

    I don’t know how you can call yourself a big proponent of 20th Century & Modernism and then flip the 1917 Stravinsky Song of the Nightingale for 1797 Mozart?

    We used the CSO’s wonderful return policy and turned our Fri tix back in for credit. Thx for your review.

  2. Posted Nov 04, 2016 at 6:15 pm by Brad

    Truly an exceptional performance, for all the reasons you point out. It’s a unique experience at a concert conducted by Maestro Levine, with the ramp and all. Despite his health struggles, it’s an inspiration to see him at the top of his game, with his face expressing delight as he absorbs himself in the music and interacts with the musicians.

    The playing of the Orchestra was incredible. In my opinion, the sound itself was also cleaner and better balanced with the risers removed from the stage. The musicians probably have a different take on that though.

  3. Posted Nov 04, 2016 at 9:03 pm by Salvador

    Mr Ahrens, I am sorry you missed the most wonderful Mozart Paris symphony I have heard in years. In fact, i had not heard the CSO perform Mozart with such a well balanced and beautiful sound…memorable…

  4. Posted Nov 06, 2016 at 12:43 pm by Anne-Marie

    The Saturday evening performance was beautiful – the Mozart Paris symphony elegant and the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique exciting! I even appreciated the Schoenberg piece better than when I heard it previously under Barenboim.

    However, I must agree with Mr. Johnson that alas we are in a new age of poor audience etiquette- chorus of hacking coughs punctuated the concert to the point that the young woman next to me remarked, “They sound like they’re dying.!!! Why do people not take the necessary measures to prevent disturbing other concertgoers’ enjoyment?

  5. Posted Nov 06, 2016 at 9:40 pm by Anon

    The coughing on Friday was bad as usual. I suspect it is always the same people. I also was disappointed not to hear the Stravinsky.

  6. Posted Nov 07, 2016 at 6:14 am by Tod Verklärung

    On the subject of “necessary measures” raised by Anne-Marie, we might want to think about what those might be. Although I have not observed more or less coughing as a consistent pattern (Solti used to complain about this frequently, so I think it tends to wax and wane), let’s assume there is more coughing. Is it possible that the incivility of reality TV, some politicians, TV and radio talk show moderators and guests, and the internet has bled into the concert hall? To take the “necessary measures” one would have to think about his neighbors, sympathize with his neighbors, not say “me first.” Unfortunately, there is little sign of this happening outside of Orchestra Hall.

  7. Posted Nov 07, 2016 at 8:11 pm by Gerry Ahrens

    actually we turned them in for credit for Tuesday night. Of Course it will be wonderful, just sayin that WAS a 20th century program b4.

    Lotta empty seats?

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