You knew this had to be a different concert from the beginning, the second half of an exchange, that had begun with the Toronto Symphony’s visit to Israel last year. Roy Thomson Hall was really full, including the seats behind the Israel Philharmonic orchestra. When they came in that big crowd erupted into applause, that was even bigger for the arrival of conductor Zubin Mehta
We started with “Oh Canada”, and I sang along (in French because I don’t know the words in English. They’ve changed them so often). Then came the Israeli anthem which I don’t know, and curiously far more people sang along with that one than with “Oh Canada.” In other words, maybe a big reason Roy Thomson Hall was so full was a patriotic one.
This is the third time I’ve seen Zubin Mehta conduct.
At 81 years old, he is one of the oldest remaining masters, now that so many have fallen recently:
- Neville Marriner
- Frans Brüggen
- Claudio Abbado
- Cristopher Hogwood
- Lorin Maazel
- Nikolaus Harnoncourt
I remember hearing back in the 1960s from one of my siblings that he was married to a Hollywood actress, which is only surprising if you haven’t seen Mehta: the handsomest orchestral conductor since Carlo Maria Giulini, who passed away a decade ago. In fact Mehta feels like the last of his generation, especially when I look back at when and how I saw him
- In 1974 Mehta conducted “The Concert of the Decade”, presenting Act I of Die Walküre with the Toronto Symphony, Birgit Nilsson, Jon Vickers and William Wilderman. They did it twice, I watched the first of the two (as a teenager incredulous that some could afford to attend both concerts).
- In 1993 I was in Chicago giving a paper at a conference, although the highlight of the trip was seeing the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Siegfried including Eva Marton (amazing)
- And tonight an older Mehta led the Israel Philharmonic
He’s still very distinguished looking, leading with the most economical gestures. If you watch this video –Mehta leading the Berlin Philharmonic in the G minor Slavonic Dance, the same one the Israel Philharmonic gave us tonight, but back in the 1990s—you see the same variety of baton movements as we saw tonight, including those wonderful little swoops in the middle section, where he lets one brief gesture stand for a whole bar. But as he’s older, he walks slower, he isn’t as ebullient in his conducting, but every bit as precise.
The program consisted of three items:
- Amit Poznansky’s Footnote, Suite for Orchestra (the only one of the three for which Mehta employed a score; the others were conducted from memory)
- Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No 2
- Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben
Poznansky’s piece is from a film, music that I’d sum up as moody pattern music with some atmospheric strumming by the pianist inside the instrument. At times there’s a quirky waltz that reminds me of the Shostakovich waltz in Eyes Wide Shut. And suddenly it was over.
We then came to a pair of pieces making this the best orchestral concert I have heard in this space in a long time, perhaps ever. I think back on the Berlin Philharmonic, and assorted inspired nights with the TSO, but this one had more intensity, and more commitment in the music-making. Conductor and players were working hard, putting everything into it.
The Ravel was subtle, very clear, very detailed. I could hear every instrument, every phrase articulated. Nothing was thrown away. Gradually the intensity built up to a powerful ending, strong but never forced.
The performance of Ein Heldenleben is a natural climax to the past few weeks obsessing over Richard Strauss, as I mulled over opera scores in anticipation of Arabella. This is the Strauss piece I probably know best, a work of a myriad themes and cross-references to other compositions that resembles a self-portrait, or a musical therapy session. The hero is Strauss himself, and the heroic life is composition, facing the critics who are caricatured mercilessly in the score. Whereas the opening statement of the theme might be inspiring, after his encounter with his enemies, the hero seems to sink into despair. He’s rescued by the emergence of his inspiration, his muse, portrayed mostly by a solo violin although her themes are circulated through the orchestra in time. And so epic as the eventual battle might be, the great moments are silences (when you really see how perfect Mehta’s leadership and control actually are), eloquent solos from the violin or the horn, whose duet in the closing minutes would have messed up my mascara if I wore any. I was struck by the beauty with which this most Jewish sounding instrument, played by David Radzynski, in a portrayal of Strauss’s muse, should be balancing the exquisite horn playing of principal James Madison Cox as the masculine side of the equation, sounding oh so Wagnerian. For the moment at least that duality (male & female, German & Jewish, and perhaps by implication, Wagner & Jews) seemed to be happily reconciled, perfectly balanced.
The clarity of the Strauss was shocking to me, even in places of great dissonance & complexity. Mehta brought out inner voices & dramas that made me think of this as a contrapuntal piece, which is ridiculous. But there’s so much in this work, that one can’t hear if one lets the dominant voices drown out the subtler answering ones. It was only clear just how judicious Mehta had been, when we heard the Dvorak encore, and the horses were set free and allowed to gallop full tilt. Everything was still very disciplined and controlled but wow what power, and what elegance.