A Hero Returns to Literally Thunderous Applause

By Welz Kauffman

If you couldn’t be there in person, which is always Plan A, by now you have heard about the night of July 23, 2016, at Ravinia. And if I have my say, you will hear about it again. James Levine returned to Ravinia for the first time since 1993. And the gods seemed to herald his triumph with the thunder and lightning of a torrential storm for the record books. But you didn’t need a Doppler to detect that something historic was going down in Highland Park.

The electricity in the atmosphere was matched by the charged performance on stage—a stage where Levine essentially grew up, conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since his 1971 debut as a last-minute replacement at a gala fundraiser 45 years ago. He stunned then as he did Saturday, passionately leading the orchestra and chorus in Mahler’s massive and cleansing “Resurrection” Symphony. He entered to a thunderous three-minute standing ovation, but that was just a nod hello compared to the waves of love that swept people to their feet at the end of the performance, where Levine accepted three curtain calls.

It was a glorious evening, Ravinia at its best, as we celebrated the 50th Ravinia Women’s Board Gala, which supports our Reach*Teach*Play education programs that now embrace our neighboring underserved neighborhoods in the most powerful way ever.

I could go on and on with hyperbole, but instead how about I let the audience speak. Here are some of the things I heard from people about that night:

“We are used to great performers and great performances at Ravinia. But, every once in a while, it feels like a great privilege to be in the audience. Last night was one of those nights.”

“Last night was extremely emotional, particularly for those of us who have been with the CSO for a while. My first concert with the CSO was as a singer in 1976, [performing Schoenberg’s] Gurrelieder with Maestro Levine. Working with him has been one of the highlights of my musical life, and now I have another wonderful memory to add to that collection.”

“I think the most remarkable thing for me was Levine’s ability to keep 4,000 people rapt for 85 minutes of Mahler. You could hear a pin drop. Even the cicadas were respectful of this momentous occasion, and the gods decided to quell their thunder and lightning as well. Mahler always storms the heavens, whether with the majesty of a great orchestra—especially the brass or the intimacy and emotion of the CSO Chorus at their best. And the ovations went on and on.”

“Levine is a genius, and to have him return to Ravinia, the scene of so many of his triumphs and Ravinia’s triumphs—especially with his recent physical challenges—will make 2016 unforgettable.”

And when it rains it pours, because there are still so many big nights coming before we close the curtain on 2016: Itzhak Perlman playing Beethoven; conductor David Zinman celebrating his 80th birthday with Misha Dichter on one night and Gil Shaham on the next; pianist Jonathan Biss launching a three-year Beethoven cycle; the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth helping to celebrating the legacy of Robert Shaw, the “dean of choral music”; Yo-Yo Ma returning with The Silk Road Ensemble, a live experience even the amazing recent film could not fully capture; and the virtuoso phenomenon Ksenjia Sidorova convinces us that the accordion is indeed a hand-held orchestra, and at the price of a movie ticket on our $10 BGH Classics series. Also don’t miss Creedence Clearwater Revival founder and frontman John Fogerty in his Ravinia debut, Bonnie Raitt in her bluesy return, and the legendary Don Henley celebrating his solo hits along with a tribute to The Eagles in this year of sadness when we lost so many great artists, including The Eagles’ Glenn Frey.

These are the nights everyone will be talking about. And everyone is welcome back (except, maybe, the rain).

Highland Park resident Welz Kauffman is not only president and CEO of Ravinia, but he also programs the festival, which is just past its 2016 halfway point. This article originally appeared in the Highland Park Landmark Magazine.