In 1971, an unknown 28-year-old conductor from Cincinnati made his Chicago Symphony debut at Ravinia in Mahler’s monumental Second Symphony, sending shockwaves through the musical world. This was James Levine, called in as a last minute substitute for then-Ravinia director István Kertész, and almost immediately led to his appointment as Ravinia’s next music director in 1973, a post he held for two magnificent decades. These were easily the festival’s glory years, a time when the music director was able to shape a singular artistic vision – a continuity regrettably lost since no successor to James Conlon was announced following his farewell concert last season.

A 1993 press conference saw Levine expressing his eagerness to return to Ravinia following stepping down, but a demanding schedule coupled with recurrent health problems prevented a homecoming until Saturday, 23 years later. Mahler’s Second was an apt choice, as not only was it the piece with which he made his debut and one keenly suited to his strengths, but Mahler was a composer he championed perhaps above all others during his Ravinia years. This culminated in the famous summer of 1977 which some of Ravinia’s more seasoned attendees still recall fondly, in which the CSO presented Mahler’s complete symphonies in a single festival season, of which Levine conducted the lion’s share. 

It was a shame then that such a highly anticipated event (announced over a year ago) was met with a torrential thunderstorm, of the type that Mahler might conjure in a symphony. Still, a hearty crowd filled the pavilion and those who braved the weather were amply rewarded. A short video introduction highlighted Levine’s accomplishments, and at last he took the stage – greeted with a standing ovation, it was certainly emotional to see him ascend the podium via a ramp in his motorized scooter, but finally the prodigal son had returned.

From this point forward, there was no resting on one’s laurels for Levine; with unabated grit and determination he dug into the heart of this formidable work – Mahler famously said that a symphony should embrace the entire world, and this is abundantly the case in the vast canvas of the Second. The opening was arresting, exuding nervous energy and the darkness of tragedy. Levine’s tempo choice was conservative (and total performance time exceed the 90-minute mark), but this emphasized the movement’s brooding, funereal demeanor. The appearance of the Dies irae gave one goosebumps, and the CSO brass section lived up to every bit of their exalted reputation.

Levine observed the five-minute pause Mahler requested following the opening movement, and this was all but necessary for both performers and audience alike to collect themselves after such intensity. The second movement by contrast had a wonderfully genial effect, offering the first sign of light ultimately triumphing over darkness. The dynamic level was brought down to a whisper which allowed for the more animated middle section to be amply differentiated. A sinuous, winding melody led by bassoonist Keith Buncke opened the third movement, along with stylish, quasi-klezmer playing from clarinetist John Bruce Yeh. Tension built to a ferocious scream, in awe of the sheer power of nature, and certainly an appropriate response to the evening’s meteorological conditions.

The brief but profound Urlicht followed, bringing us into the transcendent and spiritual realm. Karen Cargill’s lush mezzo-soprano illuminated the rarefied magic of the Wunderhorn text, and she was supported by a divine brass chorale and notable solo contributions from oboist Alex Klein and the heavenly reaches of concertmaster Stephanie Jeong. A cataclysmic thunderclap (again, how fitting) initiated the massive final movement. The highlights here were innumerable – the battalion of offstage brass adding an additional aural dimension, Christopher Martin’s clarion trumpet solos, the return of the Dies irae in the low brass building to a colossal crescendo, Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson’s silvery, nightingale-like flute solo. And then there was the entry of the chorus – barely audible at first, so otherworldly as to be almost unrecognizable as the human voice. Soprano Ying Fang soared above (although this could have been emphasized even more), and the high strings marked the end of Klopstock’s poem before Mahler’s own words supplied the rest of the material, in what simply must be the most glorious finale ever written.

While one could gripe about the sporadic moments where Levine’s acuity wasn’t what it used to be, what made the lasting impression was his obvious passion and love for the music. Some of the most magical moments were in fact the silence between certain phrases, wherein Levine was seemingly frozen in time, as if the passage of time was too quotidian a concern for the transcendent musings of Mahler. The devoted crowd of Mahlerites who ventured out in the downpour were given a performance no one will soon forget. Mahler would have been proud.