Zubin Mehta celebrates 50 years with LA Phil in a fresh take of old program

By Truman C. Wang
Saturday, December 15, 2012

LA Phil’s beloved former Music Director Zubin Mehta has been returning yearly that one almost takes him for granted. Now 76 and celebrating his 50th Golden Anniversary with the L.A. Phil, Mehta conducted the same program that he did at his first concert in 1962. Even though those under-45 members of the audience may remember him chiefly as the conductor of the “Three Tenors” concerts in the 1990’s, Mehta’s conducting credentials are long and considerable. His style is that of an ultra-polished showman, who is nonetheless capable of fire and bombast when called upon.

The concert program consisted of Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” overture and Paul Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler” Symphony. As a happy happenstance, the Mozart overture was also heard in the same concert at the Dvorak symphony’s first performance on April 22, 1885 in London. (And we all know “Don Giovanni” premiered in Dvorak’s home town of Prague). This little serendipitous gem made the anniversary concert all that more special. The Don Giovanni overture was not the version heard in the opera house, but a special arrangement made by Busoni, with the Act Two ‘happy ending’ ensemble appended to the end of the overture, thereby further extending the giocoso part of the “dramma giocoso”. Maestro Mehta directed a spirited and gripping account, striking a fine balance between the buffa and seria elements in Mozart’s music.

Poor Paul Hindemith, an erstwhile popular composer who is today known for two works – the Symphonic Metamorphosis on a Theme by Weber, and the “Mathis der Maler” Symphony. On the strength of L.A. Phil’s tour-de-force performance of the Symphony, I would love to hear the entire opera in concert. The highly atmospheric musical evocations of Grünewald's paintings were perfectly conveyed through delicate tonal balances under Mehta’s baton.

Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 in d-minor is often overshadowed by the composer’s more popular 9th, but in my opinion is superior in terms of its dramatic cohesion and melodic abundance. One gets a glimpse of the composer’s own rough and tumble background (as a butcher’s son) in the energetic rustic dance of the Scherzo vivace, which is flanked by two highly polished and dramatic outer Allegros and a sentiments-filled (but not sentimental) Poco Adagio. The first-movement Allegro, in particular, bears a musical semblance to the enchanted world of Rusalka and evil sorceress Jezibaba. Maestro Mehta gave a rather glossy account of the symphony, pointing to the work’s rich melodic charms but somehow missing the rougher hues in the symphonic fabric. The Scherzo dance was more Viennese elegance than Bohemian countryside. However, all’s well that ended well. The superb final Allegro was a thrilling tour de force of climaxes and brilliant virtuosic turns by various sections of the orchestra, garnering maestro Mehta a well-deserved ovation at the end, and at least five curtain calls.

For a Golden Anniversary concert (and for the holidays), I was surprised the Philharmonic did not deck out the stage with flowers and garlands. But no matter, musically and figuratively, it was bouquets all around.

Truman C. Wang is editor-in-chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.