Now that James Levine has left Ravinia, the search for his successor is on. German maestro Christoph Eschenbach reportedly has the inside track, and the fact that he's been chosen to open this year's season is telling. He'd make an excellent choice: Thoroughly steeped in the Germanic tradition, he's demonstrated remarkable rapport with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a guest conductor over the years, coaxing precise, energetic, and brooding performances from the most Germanic of American ensembles. A charismatic leader and orchestra builder, Eschenbach has turned the Houston Symphony into a major contender. A distinguished pianist as well, he follows the long, eminent line of pianist-conductors who also relish chamber music. See for yourself during his two-week tenure at Ravinia, which begins with the two blockbluster CSO concerts this weekend. The festival opener Friday is a choral extravaganza, a double bill of Bruckner's radiantly devotional Te Deum and Beethoven's towering Ninth Symphony. The quartet of soloists includes mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby and bass-baritone Richard Cowan, both familiar to local concertgoers. The Chicago Symphony Chorus will be led by Duain Wolfe, its new director. The Saturday concert features Eschenbach the pianist playing Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto and Eschenbach the conductor leading the CSO in another Symphony no. 9, this one by Bruckner. Friday and Saturday, 8 PM, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park; 728-4642.