As a last-minute replacement conductor for the opening concert of the Ravinia Festival’s thirty-sixth season on June 24, 1971, James Levine led the Orchestra, Chorus, and soloists in Mahler’s Second Symphony. Having just made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera leading Puccini’s Tosca on June 5, he conducted both the rehearsals and the performance of the Mahler without a score.
In the Chicago Daily News, Bernard Jacobson reported that the reverberations of Mahler’s symphony “were matched at the end of the performance by the ovation that greeted conductor James Levine. And indeed, this gifted twenty-eight-year-old musician earned every last resounding cheer. He had taken the concert over at a week’s notice from István Kertész (who was himself a replacement for the originally scheduled Eugene Ormandy), and everything he did was proof of thorough preparation, fine artistic judgment, and the ability to communicate ideas to an orchestra and, through it, to the audience.”
By February 1972, the Metropolitan announced that Levine would become its first principal conductor, and that October, Ravinia announced that he would be the festival’s second music director, succeeding Kertész, who had served as principal conductor from 1970 through the 1972 season.
Levine launched the first of his twenty years at the Ravinia Festival on June 27, 1973, leading the Orchestra, Chorus, and soloists in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. His tenure was marked with an astonishing range of repertoire: cycles of symphonies by Brahms and Mahler; Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Beethoven’s piano concertos; choral masterworks by Berlioz, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Orff, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky; and concert performances of operas by Bellini, Donizetti, Mozart, Puccini, Saint-Saëns, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, and Wagner, all with the leading singers of the day.
Levine amassed an extensive discography with the Orchestra and Chorus (including several Grammy winners) on Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, and RCA, recorded at Orchestra Hall and in Medinah Temple, including Beethoven’s five piano concertos with Alfred Brendel; Berg’s Violin Concerto and Rihm’s Time Chant with Anne-Sophie Mutter; Brahms’s four symphonies and A German Requiem with Kathleen Battle and Håkan Hagegård; Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (conducting from the keyboard); Holst’s The Planets; Mahler’s symphonies no. 3 with Marilyn Horne, no. 4 with Judith Blegen, and no. 7; and Schubert’s Ninth Symphony.
Twenty years to the day of his first concert as music director, Levine capped his tenure on June 27, 1993, leading the Orchestra and Chorus in Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration, and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
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