Monday, March 30, 2009

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with Zubin Mehta at Disney Hall

Concert performed March 3, 2009

by Rodney Punt

It promised to be the musical equivalent of presenting the Holy Grail to Sin City: Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony - his last, most tortured, incomplete at his death - performed by the devout composer’s home-town orchestra under the baton of the Viennese-trained Zubin Mehta here in Los Angeles. (Mehta was musical director of the LAPO from 1962-78.)

In the event, the Disney Hall premiere of the Vienna Philharmonic and the return of L.A.’s prodigal son was something of an anti-climax, even if the orchestra gave a generally solid performance. Mehta’s pacing was steady, the handling sure, the orchestra’s shattering dissonance at the end of the third movement hair-raising. But the performance was not probing. The famed Viennese brass, sounding brighter in our hall than I had remembered them in Vienna, had an off night as well, with a few muffed entrances, perhaps due to the orchestra’s arrival in our city just hours before performance time.
Rounding out the program were oddities by two other native Austrian composers. Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade is an adequate but hardly arresting orchestral exercise by a composer far more worthy of our attention as a Lieder specialist in the tradition of Schubert and Schumann. Joseph Marx’s Four Songs was even odder, Technicolor orchestral Lieder in the lush Romantic style of Marx’s Austrian-born contemporary, Erich Wolfgang Korngold. In this concert the Marx songs were sold way past their shelf-life, competently but not that compellingly sung by soprano Angela Maria Blasi.

Pairing off-beat Marx and Wolf with Bruckner seemed a wasted opportunity. Works from the Second Viennese School might have been more appreciated and relevant as the VPO’s calling card. Schoenberg, et al, are long Mehta's specialties.
Mehta told the audience after the performances that he had waited since 1962 to present this orchestra in Los Angeles. Really? A lot has happened here since 1962. Los Angeles has matured musically, and we expect something more for such an auspicious event. This concert, in both its repertoire and performance, seemed a little quirky and musty.


Mehta, 73 next month, remains a commanding presence on the podium, sure in his baton technique and with the muscular trappings of his glory years pretty much intact. But his conducting can strike one as blasé, occasionally even on autopilot. This lack of aesthetic urgency puzzles. Is it due to a tendency to accept too many gigs in far off places with not enough recovery time? Mehta is always prepared, but not always profound.

Perhaps a clue or two to the man can be uncovered in his just published autobiography, copies of which the conductor autographed after the above VPO concert. I was one of those who waited in line after purchasing a copy.

Zubin Mehta, The Score of My Life (with Renate Gräfin Matuschka) has the breezy read and haphazard spontaneity of a work dictated by a busy conductor in idle moments between gigs, to be sewn together by others later on. In this recounting, very much in Mehta’s own voice, we hear about an amazingly charmed life that took him from a humble birth in India to the acquired girth of a gourmet world citizen.

I was touched early on by the story of Zubin’s indomitable father, Mehli Mehta, long a favorite presence in Los Angeles in his later years with his American Youth Symphony. As a young man in India with family obligations, Mehli took on the quixotic but ultimately successful goal of becoming a violinist and conductor of Western classical music in a nation more used to sitars. With Mehli Mehta, East met and disarmed West. With his son it was conquered. Mehli's legacy became Zubin's destiny.

(In another professional life, I gave the senior Mehta a proclamation from the City of Los Angeles on his 80th birthday. Zubin and his brother Zarin and their families were present. It was touching. Family bonds with the travelling Mehtas are real.)

Mehta reminds us frequently how his world revolves around family, even as he himself revolves around the world. Next to family, old musical friends seem most important to him, especially those acquired in his Vienna student days, like pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, and violinists Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, with whom he has performed for decades. Mehta was and is a supreme networker.

Early on, Mehta was always in the right place at the right time. (Some would call this lucky, others the "residue of design.") With matinee-idol good looks, he accommodated effortlessly the disparate needs of both ailing maestros and trailing matrons. His was the prize when the likes of a Fritz Reiner fell ill, or a Georg Solti fell out, the latter in a heated dispute with the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s management.

In a long career, Mehta, the marathon runner of modern conductors, held record stewardships with both the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics, as well as with orchestras in Florence, Munich and Israel, and a long association with the Vienna Philharmonic.

A natural extrovert, the conductor gravitated in mid-career toward the big emotional sweep of opera, while keeping one foot in purely orchestral music. Managements have clearly appreciated his preparation – he often conducts from memory - and though not self-credited in his book, his is a generally sunny temperament that gets along and goes along. He's a pro all the way.

Mehta has long supported progressive political causes, and has put his own life in harm's way countless times performing with the Israel Philharmonic in some of the rougher neighborhoods of the Middle East. He has also, almost recklessly, championed the performance of Wagner's music in Israel, which has given him some grief amongst holocaust survivors in that country.

Mehta is frank throughout about personal failings, regretting that he hurt his wife Nancy's feelings over a love affair that produced a child out of wedlock, a similar occurence of which he slyly mentioned also happened to his father. Mehta also freely relates his musical fiascos, including early attempts at conducting Wagner, of which he is now a specialist. (His Los Angeles Tristan is still favorably talked about.)

At this stage of a long and successful career, Mehta seems to have little to hide or regret, nor much of a score-settling attitude with professional colleagues, even if we see hints here and there of slightly ruffled feathers. Free recently from long-term opera or orchestra directorships, except for his life tenure at Israel, he has earned his success, and in his own words is as "free as a bird."

Perhaps he can now also recharge some of that youthful intensity that so won over Los Angeles many long decades ago. How about a survey of Schoenberg's orchestral works for a start?

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