Highland Park, Ill. — "Chicago is the great American city," Norman Mailer writes at the beginning of his famous account of the 1968 Democratic convention. It would be hard to find a swaggering Chicagoan who doesn't agree, nor would many of this tough breed probably flinch when, a bit later, Mailer reduces Chicago to "a broadly fleshy nose with nostrils open wide to stench, stink, a pretty day, a well-stacked broad, and the beauties of a dirty buck."
Last weekend in Highland Park, I couldn't shake that fleshy image from my mind during the 100th anniversary gala of the Ravinia Festival, which is about 25 miles north of Chicago and serves as the summer home of the Chicago Symphony. There I was in a lovely sylvan setting, seated beneath a broad canopied roof among the part of the audience dressed in black tie, and the group around me included a couple of politicians, nostrils flaring.
The gala was starry and elaborate. Christoph Eschenbach conducted the orchestra. The popular mezzo-soprano Susan Graham flew in to appear in the trio and finale from "Der Rosenkavalier," joining sopranos Renee Fleming and Heidi Grant Murphy. Lang Lang, who got his big break on this stage five years ago, was soloist in a Chopin piano concerto. Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg played Saint-Saens. Fourteen solo singers were rounded up so that Vaughan Williams' radiant "Serenade to Music" could be given one of its rare-as-a-blue-moon performances under that night's honest-to-God blue moon. Jennifer Higdon wrote a new piece for the occasion.
It had been an exceptionally pretty day, said to be the nicest of the summer. There's no city stench and stink in this posh suburb, but you did at least get a whiff of the hot dog vendors, and you couldn't miss the beauties of the dirty buck ($2.50 for a mini-cup of potato salad as a side for the dog).
The politicos were clearly more interested in working the theater than being worked by the music. This is Chicago; the machine never stops. But there was also a sense that the three-hour gala, performed without intermission, was meant to show the size of the town's appetite for a rich multi-course meal. Size matters in Chicago, and here were bigwigs with the gluttonous capacity to inhale a gargantuan artistic event as all part of a day's work.
This may help explain why, in the summer, Chicago is the major American city with the most ambitious steady diet of substantial classical music. That is not to say that Ravinia doesn't go in for Hollywood Bowl-ish crowd-pleasing. It offers the same summery Mozart, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff suspects performed outdoors everywhere else. As the local politicians will be the first to tell you, never, ever ignore the working stiff. Peter, Paul and Mary are on their way, as are Tony Bennett and old-timey stars of country music. Even John Mauceri's got a gig (accompanying the Peking Acrobats).
Room is made for everyone, yet standards are not lowered. The menu for new and recent music is surprisingly extensive. While the Bowl routinely showcases the same pops program on Friday and Saturday, this weekend the Chicago Symphony is offering three different classical programs conducted by James Conlon. On each is an American work. One of them is Peter Lieberson's resplendent Tibetan Buddhist-themed concerto, "Red Garuda," with pianist Peter Serkin as soloist. Serkin played it a few years back with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Music Center. Will any of us live long enough to hear it at the Bowl?
Ravinia also has a lovely, intimate indoor recital hall, the Miller Theatre, where students and stars alike perform. Deborah Voigt was supposed to blow the delightfully decorated roof off it recently, although she canceled at the last minute, citing diva exhaustion. During my short stay, I heard the ravishing Bombay-born soprano Patricia Rozario give the American premiere of a luminous new 63-minute mystical song cycle by John Tavener, two weeks after its first performance in Britain.
But the soul of Ravinia is the Chicago Symphony, which has been in residence since 1936. The site opened in 1904 as an amusement park. It served as a come-on for the railroad, which stopped right on the grounds. Trains still do, and that is another great thing about Ravinia. For $7 and change, you can ride round-trip from downtown on a commuter car.
In the early years, a casino, a dance floor and a baseball diamond were Ravinia's principal attractions, although Walter Damrosch's New York Symphony was also on the bill. In 1911, the park was reconstituted as a classical music and opera venue, and between 1919 and 1931 -- before the establishment of the great European summer opera festivals -- it was the summer opera capital of the world.