Zubie Baby! Reputation and Reality: Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic at Davies Hall

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Zubin Mehta

Zubin Mehta

Davies Hall, San Francisco
The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta, Music Director and Conductor

Sunday, February 27, 2011
Haydn –  Symphony No. 96, “The Miracle”
Mahler – Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor

Monday, February 28, 2011
Beethoven – Leonore Overture No. 3, Opus 72a
Webern – Passacaglia, Opus 1
Webern – Six Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 6
Schubert –  Symphony in C major, D.944, “The Great”

Last week Zubin Mehta led the Israel Philharmonic in two all-orchestral evenings, spoon to spoon at Davies Hall, and the performances were revelatory on many levels. One had the feeling that Mehta, now 75, has deepened his musicianship and only conducts music he profoundly loves. Indeed, the two extremely Viennese programs lacked only Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben to round out a sense of this conductor’s signature repertory.

These were concerts that seemed to sum things up. The remarkable beauty and maturity of the orchestra’s Schubert and Webern virtually demanded notice. And Mehta’s Haydn surprised with its delicacy. But the Israel Philharmonic’s Mahler, though beautifully conceived and long a Mehta specialty, emerged in places nearly unplayable by the brass. Tour performances like these are windows on a reputation, and the extended love-affair Mehta has pursued with a certain type of sonority has left its mark on this orchestra over the years. But both his notion of an ideal sound — and their sound — has evolved. These concerts were enlightening. Explanations are in order.

When Zubin Mehta first came to public attention in the late 1960s, the Los Angeles public relations machine, flamboyant then as now, saw to it that he was acclaimed in very much the way Gustavo Dudamel is today. Here was a darkly handsome, exotic heartthrob, arriving just in time to rescue musical excitement in America from the departure of Leonard Bernstein for foreign shores. A certain amount of “Zubie Baby!” razzmatazz surrounded Mehta from the beginning and affected the way he was reviewed. But this was a distraction from the seriousness the young conductor actually represented to listeners. Mehta was the first of a new generation of music directors who openly admired the evocative and flexible musicianship of Wilhelm Furtwängler — who endeavored to explain it to the public — and who tried to imitate it in practice.

By the mid 1960s, the long American infatuation with Arturo Toscanini had begun to subside. Toscanini’s radio broadcasts, at one time models for a certain kind of excellence and clarity and then transferred to LP, often sounded unbending and emotionally inadequate. Toscanini admirers such as Szell, Steinberg, Boulez and Leinsdorf continued to lead ever-clearer orchestral performances in ever more analytical sonorities, yet often seemed to be confusing a watch mechanism with the telling of time. The music world was ready for a romantic conductor of a different sort, and Zubin Mehta arrived as its timely advance guard. He would soon be followed by the all-pervasive Furtwänglerian hagiography of Daniel Barenboim, but for a few years he had this particular stage to himself

Mehta made a point of promoting his philosophy to the New York Times. In an interview much quoted since, he explained that he wanted musicians to play behind the beat, like the orchestras of Vienna and Berlin, and to phrase less percussively than the norm. He wanted sonorities to surge. An American ensemble, he suggested, approaching a musical climax, is likely to go “BAM.” The Vienna Philharmonic, he pointed out, will go “WHAM” and “VROOM.” It would be his purpose to bring this “Vienna” sound to his American performances.

These words were received with some excitement by romantically-minded music lovers, and Mehta’s early recordings of Bruckner and Schmidt, laid down with the Vienna Philharmonic, seemed to suggest that subtle and incandescent interpretations would soon appear in profusion on the American continent. It didn’t quite turn out that way. In practice, the young Mehta’s Los Angeles Philharmonic often seemed to approach sonority as a caricature. An early recording of Tchaikovsky shows the orchestra arrayed on stage with twelve basses, instead of the usual eight. Mehta performances often simply weighed a ton, laid out on a thick and opaque texture, and seemed to substitute immature glitz for the luminous phrasing and insight the Furtwängler tradition represented.

At first, audiences mostly noticed the excitement, which was real. Mehta could take the Philadelphia Orchestra through Holst’s The Planets and lift the roof off Carnegie Hall in a manner Eugene Ormandy would never have dared. But the Los Angeles Philharmonic was not the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Mehta wasn’t interested in copying Ormandy’s genteel string dominated sonority, with its soft liquid winds, where nothing ever seemed fully to rise up through the heavy cream to annoy blue-haired ladies in the audience.

It is hard to say exactly why it would be the case, whether immaturity or lack of time, but Mehta seemed to settle-in for glib, extroverted results too easily in a busy career. This did not occur just in Los Angeles, but later at the New York Philharmonic, and in Tel Aviv as well. I heard the Israel Philharmonic perform Dvořák on tour with Mehta in the early 1980s, and the ensemble’s uniform thickness of sonority was claustrophobic: a heavily-sprung orchestra with decent winds and a brass problem, the latter apparently endemic in Israel. This now brings us to the Zubin Mehta and Israel Philharmonic of today and to the mature musicianship this venerable team set before Davies audiences last week. And, oh yes, with a continuing brass problem!

From the first note of the national anthem, (and the anthems of both countries were performed both nights), it was immediately clear that Zubin Mehta’s sense of orchestral sonority, while still rich and wonderfully plummy, had a new transparency. Gone was the thick sludge of performances past. Instead one’s ears rejoiced at a beautifully balanced luminosity. Lower strings were kaleidoscopic, the winds soft, not as reticent as Vienna’s, but euphonious, and the brass generally sonorous when accurate. There was something curiously comforting in the bass solidity of the orchestra, as though one were safely riding in a large Buick, but one capable of being nimble when necessary. And Mehta, himself, trimmer than in the past and now prone to walk a bit more slowly to the podium, is still the same competent and dignified family doctor driving it.

There has always been an extremely masculine dimension to Zubin Mehta’s musical demeanor. He exerts musical control largely stiff-armed from the elbow, seldom rotating his wrist, and this may explain why one doesn’t turn to his performances for the ultimate in pianissimi and diaphanous poetry, but his paw-like swipes convey incredible power. Indeed, viewed from afar, Mehta resembles nothing so much as a large black bear standing on his hind legs bobbing back and forth to the music. Despite whatever infirmity now impedes his walking, once on the podium, Mehta is still quite capable of jumping into the air as the spirit moves him. And he has an amusing tendency now of facing the audience, as he flips from one side of the orchestra to the other. Arthur Fiedler used to do that when a young lady was being seated at the Boston Pops, and so did Barbirolli when he simply wanted to leer at someone!

National anthems at concerts tend to instil tension. On Sunday there were pickets outside the hall, reminding one that the Israel Philharmonic is a political entity and the Middle East in its greatest turmoil in decades. But I was grateful to hear both pieces of music so beautifully and richly performed. To distinguish between the anthems and the concert music, Mehta ended each anthem with a subtle diminuendo, a nice touch.

Sunday’s anthem was followed upon immediately by Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, in as supple and deft a reading as anyone could possibly wish. Mehta repeatedly dovetailed his phrases with diminuendi, and the results were silky. Readers of these pages will not be surprised, however, to hear me say I wished there were more instruments on stage. Haydn, himself premiered this work with somewhere between 95 and 100 players. Zubin Mehta had 50 on stage, and its diminished quality was immediately evident after the full and rich sounds of the national anthems. Why, I found myself thinking, must this powerful music be denied its adult standing and always be performed in short pants?

A stamina test for the orchestra came next in Mahler’s Symphony No 5. One doesn’t know how much fatigue and jet lag played into a good bit of brass confusion, but it was clear the audience would have heard a magnificent performance, if only the trumpets, horns and trombones had actually managed the notes. By the end of the symphony, only the tuba player, it seemed, had emerged intact. Mehta’s conception was mainstream, very much like Karajan’s, without perhaps that last rapt touch of reverential quiet Karajan spent a lifetime perfecting. His funeral march was heavy and powerful, never letting you forget that funeral marches and subtlety don’t really go together, and the second movement chorale swelled gloriously and expansively. In the third movement scherzo, deft string interplay during the waltz section was pure Vienna. Plucked bass strings in the Adagietto, on the other hand, were pure Buick. It seemed to work, but you’d never mistake it for Karajan. The finale was triumphant and all you could wish. Interestingly, though, despite many curtain calls gallantly thanking the brass, Mehta may have sensed it wouldn’t be the right evening for an encore. Or perhaps not, but in any case there was none.

Any reservations coming to mind were completely banished from Monday’s concert. There were no audible imprecisions of any sort. But the joys of the evening were far more profound than that. Here in San Francisco, dedicating Monday’s Schubert 9th to the memory of his old friend Josef Krips and to the Viennese charms of his youth, Mehta seemed totally engaged with the music in the way early enthusiasts had once so profoundly hoped. Here — at long last — was the great conductor we knew could come out of the Furtwängler tradition.

The evening began with a massive but wonderfully gleaming performance of the Beethoven Leonore Overture No. 3, eight basses on stage to Marek Janowski’s recent SF Symphony six. No question In Mehta’s mind about small-scale Beethoven! This was big and Karajan-like, but minus any of Karajan’s strange etherial ability to make almost any piece of music glow like the second act of Tristan. Elemental, nonetheless.

There followed next as glowing and beautiful a rendition of the Webern Passacaglia as I have ever heard. The trick with Webern, I think, is to understand the importance he gives at critical moments to the sound of a single note. This is evident in the Six Pieces, in a sort of obvious way, I suppose, because sometimes a single note is all Webern will let you hear. But in the Passacaglia and in “Im Sommerwind,” one alternates between sweeping romance and the sudden dry coughs of pointillistic chords. The music is all about changing tempo from one section to the next, so Mehta’s sense of structure and ebb and flow were really put to the test. Here one needs that special Furtwänglerian flexibility, and Mehta supplied it intuitively and effortlessly.

But beyond this is the fact that Webern’s music, in the right hands, can be truly human and almost romantic. The fact that it came into being composed along the lines of a new theory never stopped the Viennese from thinking of it as music and enjoying it as such. Mehta clearly agreed. And indeed, as he led the orchestra through the fourth of the jewel-like Six Pieces, the rumbling crescendo was so richly supported from below that the listener could nearly persuade himself he was taking in the Enigma Variations. As the music slowly levitated through its tubular bell climax, Mehta stood nearly motionless, hands outstretched, pointing out each instrumental entrance with a single finger, while his arms gradually rose in tandem. It was powerful theater.

But nothing prepared this listener for the stunning beauty of the Schubert 9th Zubin Mehta conducted after intermission. This is a terribly treacherous piece, long, declamatory, and without counterpoint. The melody in front of the listener is all there is, and repeating it or doing so at the wrong tempo, can easily leave audiences bored. So what a wonderful surprise! No repeats. Rich, full orchestra. Rounded phrasing, but fastish tempi. Woodwinds up front in pairs, where they can be heard. (A clever placement!) Magnificently surging trombones and timpani at the climaxes. Tiny little touches of Viennese string sentiment everywhere else. Around every corner some new revelation. Does there come a point in this account of vanished sounds where one must simply say, “You had to be there”? I suppose so. One only hopes a recording of this tour performance will eventually emerge. A re-release of Mehta’s much earlier Schubert 9th is available, masquerading as same, but I hope record producers soon come to understand that they begin to have in Zubin Mehta the sort of transcendent senior musician audiences look to. Comprehensive recordings of his repertoire would be worth making, and if delivered with the same commitment, might well emerge as iconic.

Symphony conductors are, after all, among the few performers in life who get better with age. Audiences always seem to need what you might call a “point of reverence,” the saintly senior who elucidates the great mysteries of life. Sometimes, both the elucidation and the saintliness are largely a figment of our imagination: think Gunter Wand. He was old. That’s about it! But then, think Furtwängler, think Karajan, think Stokowski, think Klemperer and you find age gave each of these men a combination of insight and freedom. We are the richer for it.

Let’s hope then that Decca records Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic in the Schubert 9th. After all, as the New Yorker sitting behind me pointed out to his wife in a crocodile voice. “It’s not as noisy as the last piece!”

The evening ended with the Overture to Die Fledermaus.

Perfection!

About the author

Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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