Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sleepless in Seattle

To sit in front of a great orchestra, under a great conductor, and experience the music making, is an indelible experience. When I was a teenager, I travelled with my family in one of those if-it’s-Tuesday-it-must-be-Rome tours to Europe. We landed in Lucerne, still one of my favourite cities in Europe, and I saw a poster advertising a concert with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic, of which he was music director at the time. I managed to purchase what must have been one of the last tickets, found the hall, got to my seat, and waited in anticipation.

I live in a city with a good orchestra, but nothing prepared for the pure visceral sensation of experiencing the sound of the New York Philharmonic. The first notes of Dvorak’s Carnival Overture hit me like a tidal wave, and I sat breathless until the end of the piece. It was as if I was hearing a symphony orchestra for the first time in my life. The rest of the concert, with Wieniawski’s first violin concerto (with Sidney Harth) and Beethoven’s Erioca Symphony, was as much a revelation. I left the Lucerne Konzerthaus walking on air.

I had the good fortune to experience Maestro Mehta’s conducting one more time, this time in Vancouver, where he gave a concert with the Israel Philharmonic – Bach’s third Brandenberg Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony.

Then, this past Saturday, February 26th, Mr. Mehta visited the west coast again, this time in Seattle, and gave a concert with the Israel Philharmonic at Benaroya Hall. This concert was part of the Israel Philharmonic North American tour in celebration of the orchestra’s 75th anniversary and Mehta’s 50th anniversary conducting the orchestra. It is moving to see this orchestra, originally made up of musicians escaping Hitler’s Europe, takes its place among the world’s great orchestras. Mr. Mehta, who has devoted much of his professional life to this ensemble, certainly deserves a lot of the credit for the orchestra’s present standards.

After acknowledging the enthusiastic reception of the audience, Mr. Mehta opened the concert with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, a touchstone of the orchestral repertoire, and one of the composer’s four efforts in writing a suitable overture for his opera Fidelio. Mr. Mehta lets the music speak for itself, without overly exaggerating the music’s dramatic elements. Mr. Mehta is not a rigid-tempo conductor, and he does not hesitate to give the music a great deal of elasticity, or plasticity. Throughout the evening, it is apparent how the conductor allows the music to breathe, to expand, or tighten, all according to its natural flow.

Few conductors would dare to go on tour by programming the music of Anton Webern – not exactly a composer that tops the classical music charts. The orchestra performed Webern’s Op. 1 Passacaglia, music still steeped in the expressionstic, post-Wagnerian harmonic language. From his first concerts with the Israel Philharmonic, Mr. Mehta has been committed to performing music of the Second Viennese School. He gives an ardent and impassioned reading of this early Webern score, without forgetting to clarify the rather dense texture of the music.

Before the interval, the orchestra went on to play the composer’s 1928 Six Pieces for Orchestra. Written less than a year after the Passacaglia, this music falls squarely into the world of atonality. Perhaps this was Webern’s homage to his mentor and teacher, Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. In spite of their brevity, the composer fully exploited, in the best sense of the word, the resources of every instrumental group in the rather large orchestral forces, and the music is in many ways just as dramatic as the Mahler that follows. As in the Passacaglia, Mr. Mehta gave a splendid reading of the score, reminding us that there is much beauty in the music’s many dissonances.

After the intermission, the orchestra gave us Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in C-sharp minor. Mehta’s takes the opening Trauermarsch at a more brisk tempo than many other conductors. As the music progresses, I began to realize the logic behind Mehta’s choice of tempi, and his pacing of the music, from one section to the next, and into the Stürmisch bewegt movement, as it highlights the relationship between these two movements which make up the first part of the symphony. In the final measure of the first movement, Mehta is the only conductor I have heard to direct the violas, celli and basses to actually play the final pizzicato note pianissimo, as written by Mahler. Many conductors would ask for a very thick string tone for this final note, which is not called for in the score. In the second movement, I find especially Mehta’s handling of the brief appearance of the chorale (to be heard again in the fifth movement) intensely moving.

The massive scherzo, the centrepiece of the symphony, at 819 bars, is one of the longest of all Mahlerian scherzos, according to Henry-Louis de la Grange. The Mahler biographer and expert also points out that unlike other scherzos by Mahler, this one contains “no conscious element of parody or caricature”. As in the first part of the symphony, Mehta deftly negotiates through the extremely tricky transitions between the scherzo and the two trio sections, such that the music flows naturally and logically from one episode to the next.

The third part of the symphony begins with the justly famous Adagietto, a declaration of love from Mahler to his wife, Alma, according to conductor Willem Mengelberg. Both in atmosphere and in its thematic material, the movement is reminiscent of Mahler’s song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. The strings of the Israel Philharmonic did themselves proud here, playing with great beauty of sound and depth of feeling.

Mr. Mehta made the final pianissimo of the Adagietto so beautiful and drawn out that the French horn entry of the fifth movement took me completely by surprise, and the feeling was one of waking up from a beautiful reverie. Henry-Louis de la Grange writes that this final rondo, “with its absolute mastery of technical means and compositional procedures inspired by the classical tradition, but enriched by his inexhaustible musical imagination, marks a new high point in Mahler’s output.” Mr. Mehta’s handling of this large scale movement is no less masterful. Again, the tempo shifts from one section to the next was so well done that the flow of the music takes on a sense of inevitability until the end. Again, the soloists of the Israel Philharmonic play this music like virtuosi, and with great confidence. The magnificent trumpet chorale, hinted at in the second movement, never sounded more glorious as on this evening.

I feel privileged to have been a witness to this incredible artistic event. I will remember, and be thankful, for the beauty of the Beethoven, Webern and Mahler for a long time to come, and for this wonderful group of musicians for making it all possible.

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