Homecoming Mehta Turns LA Phil Into a Brahms Orchestra

By Truman C. Wang


Plagued by health problems, Zubin Mehta returns to Los Angeles this month for an extended stay – to recuperate from a hip surgery, and to conduct all-Brahms concerts.  A former Music Director and flamboyant boy wonder of the L.A. Phil (a role reprised spectacularly today by Gustavo Dudamel), the 82-year-old Mehta is considered a generalist among conductors who does many things well; Brahms, however, was not one of them – until today.

Apparently, judging from the two concerts that I heard on Friday and Saturday, December 14-15, maestro Mehta must have devoted much of his downtime to studying Brahms.  The LA Phil excels in twentieth-century, post-Romantic repertoire and can often sound like fish out of water in the classic Three B’s.  Under Mehta, suddenly, there is a newfound wisdom and fluency in these Brahms performances, as if this music had been in the musicians’ blood for as long as Sibelius’ has.

Yefim Bronfman was the piano soloist, a big brawny guy with sensitive, poetic fingers.  His playing in the Piano Concerto No. 1 (Dec. 14) was energetic, lyrical and vital.  The piano tone was bold, shiny, full of subtle shades.  The orchestral playing was laid out broadly and clearly, with episodes morphing into one another naturally and organically.  One had the feeling that conductor and pianist had lengthy rehearsal sessions in which everything was beautifully worked out.  All in all, it was a noble and satisfying performance.   The Piano Concerto No. 2 (Dec. 15) was no less fine, featuring memorable contributions from the horn in the opening Allegro and cello in the Andante, marred only by ill-timed applause from some members of the audience . (The Dec 14 audience was whisper quiet in between movements). 

Despite the misleading key signatures, Brahms’ C-minor Symphony No. 1 is as grandly extrovert as his D-major Symphony No. 2 is intimately introvert.  Maestro Mehta, seated on an elevated podium with a foot stool and a specially-constructed wheelchair ramp, still – bless his heart – retained much of his upper body strength and wielded his baton with vigor and precision.  The First Symphony (Dec. 14) sounded appropriately monumental, with thick layering of melodies clearly distinguishable.  The warm, lustrous strings and mellifluous brass recalled those of the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Mehta in this hall some nine years ago – not bad for an orchestra 6,000 miles from Vienna.  In the Second Symphony (Dec.15), the horns sounded the warm ray that lights the path into the opening.  Cellos played the espressivo melody memorably at the start of the Adagio.  The old maestro delivered fresh, joyful revelations of glory, executed with youthful energy, delight, beauty of sound and phrasing, and an uncanny accord between conductor and players.

I can’t wait to hear what maestro Mehta, a new Brahms specialist, will do with the Third and Fourth Symphonies in January.

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily. He studied Integrative Biology and Music at U.C. Berkeley.