November 2, 2016 is a day that will forever be ingrained in Chicago’s history as the Cubs astonishingly clinched their first World Series title since 1908. Difficult as that might be to top, the following evening was hardly a letdown with James Levine making his first downtown Chicago Symphony appearance in over a decade. This came right on the heels of his emotional Ravinia homecoming last summer during which he led a magnificent performance of Mahler’s Resurrection, and there was an air of enthusiasm in the audience for another chance to see such a beloved figure.

Schoenberg: <i>Five Pieces for Orchestra</i> © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Schoenberg: Five Pieces for Orchestra
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Some modifications to the stage had to be made to accommodate the ramp for Levine’s motorized wheelchair and this necessitated the musicians to sit on the same level instead of the usual terraced configuration.  Any misgivings that this would result in an overly homogenized sound were easily mitigated by Levine’s acute ear for orchestral color.

The original program was to include Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale but Levine jettisoned it in favor of Mozart’s Symphony no. 31 in D major.  Normally I’d regret a missed opportunity to hear an infrequently performed 20th century work, but there was little cause for that in this superb performance of an appealing work from an accomplished Mozartian.  The first movement was bold and grand, radiating a courtly, Gallic charm as per its Parisian epithet – and buttressed by the clarinets in Mozart’s first symphony to use them. Delicate passagework in the high strings made the slow movement all the more lovely, and the effervescent finale included a fugato section – perhaps anticipating the Jupiter – which was executed with clarity and direction. This was big-boned Mozart to be sure, but I doubt Mozart would have objected given the joy Levine exuded and that the musicians had in working with him.

Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra made for a startling contrast – miniatures scored for a massive orchestra of Mahlerian proportions that push tonality to the limits. The opening Vorgefühle was rash, forceful, and altogether unforgiving, while Vergangenes conveyed a pained nostalgia, made all the more unsettling by John Bruce Yeh’s trills in the high clarinet. Farben is the most striking of the set with the same chord repeated but in perpetually changing orchestration, refracted through the lens of instrumental color, Levine making an unequivocal case for the structural function of timbre. Aggressive playing returned in Peripetie, matters often colored by the muted brass, and set was rounded off by the eerie ostinato of Das obligate Rezitativ.

Percussion section in <i>Symphonie Fantastique</i> © Todd Rosenberg Photography
Percussion section in Symphonie Fantastique
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

More familiar territory was to be had in the Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz, a favorite of both the CSO and Levine. Especially in the wake of the preceding Schoenberg, it can be hard to make the work sound to modern audiences as utterly revolutionary as it is, yet Levine managed to bring fresh insights – with a composer as attuned to orchestral color as Berlioz, it made for an ideal pairing. The dreamy opening was passionate and yearning, emphasizing the lushness of strings in the buildup to the first presentation of the idée fixe in the violins, augmented by Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson’s flute. There were times in which the timpani and brass came across a bit too loud, but a keener balance was achieved as the performance went underway. 

Duetting harps opened Un bal with the lilting waltz carried in the strings.  Iconoclastic as the work was, here Berlioz is still fundamentally adhering to the time-honored tradition of a dance as one of the symphony’s inner movements.  The idée fixe was heard in the clarinets before matters concluded in a waltzing frenzy.  The expansive Scène aux champs presented a captivating pastoral vision, with Scott Hostetler’s searching ranz des vaches in the English horn answered in the oboe by an offstage Alex Klein, both finely played.  By the movement’s end, the forlorn calls of Hostetler were only countered by the increasingly menacing thunder in the timpani, signaling the impending storm.

At this point, we entered the terrifying opiate-induced dreamworld, and the Marche au supplice was given with tremendous power and kinetic energy. Clarinetist Stephen Williamson gave one last appearance of the idée fixe before it was cut short by the fall of the guillotine.  In the concluding Songe d'une nuit du sabbat, the idée fixe, once a statement of beauty and nobility, has been reduced to the grotesque; its reappearances in the clarinet now shrill and distasteful. The myriad of ingenious effects, from the rumbling Dies irae in the low brass to the col legno strings and offstage bells, washed over Orchestra Hall in a stunning display of sheer intensity of sound.

James Levine conducting encore: <i>Take me out to the ball game</i> © Todd Rosenberg Photography
James Levine conducting encore: Take me out to the ball game
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

After prolonged ovations, Levine fittingly indulged the celebratory audience with a rendition of Take Me Out to the Ball Game. He exited the stage waving the iconic “W” flag, like a true Chicagoan.