Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Zubin Mehta and Mahler's "Resurrrection"

Conductor Zubin Mehta returned to “his” orchestra in Los Angeles for a series of concerts to begin the New Year. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the names “Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic” were synonymous, and it was this musical marriage that put the orchestra on the musical map, dispelling the idea of the “big five” American orchestras worthy of mention. Since then, the orchestra had had a number of fine music directors, and Mehta had also been at the helm of many orchestras and opera companies. Even so, there is something special when the conductor returns to make music with the orchestra of the city that he still considers one of his homes.

I was fortunate to have been in Los Angeles this past weekend, and was therefore in the orchestra’s beautiful home of the Walt Disney Concert Hall for Mehta’s stunning reading of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, more commonly known as “Resurrection”. The performing forces for this massive work also included soprano Chen Reiss, mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura, as well as the Los Angeles Master Chorale (under the expert direction of Grant Gershon).

Mehta has always been a champion of this work, and his early recording of it with the Vienna Philharmonic is still in the catalogue, a remarkable achievement given the number of recordings available. Since then, his interpretation has matured, and Friday night’s performance positively glowed with a beautiful burnished quality in the sound of the orchestra. Indeed the hallmark of any performance by Zubin Mehta is the beauty of the sound he elicits from whichever orchestra he is leading.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the energy with which Mehta and the orchestra tore into the opening of the first movement. Mehta effectively observed Mahler’s accelerando marking for the C minor scale at m. 4, giving the music a real sense of direction and drive. The Los Angeles cellists and double bassists played with the requisite thickness and pesante quality the music calls for. The violins played the rising motif at rehearsal 3 with great warmth and tenderness, giving real contrast and a sudden shift of mood from the storminess of the opening. Mehta conjured up a truly awesome apocalyptic vision at the orchestra outburst at rehearsal 15 (schnell), and the brief passage of triplet figures at rehearsal 20 (Molto pesante) was played with an incredible sense of urgency. The descending scale that ends the movement (rehearsal 27), with its lengthened silence (Mahler indicated a ritenuto marking over the rests – before the two final C’s), left the audience truly breathless. 

In this opening movement, Mehta highlighted for me, perhaps for the first time, the startling "weirdness" inherent in Mahler's orchestral writing.

The Ländler that makes up the second movement betrayed Mehta’s Viennese upbringing, and the music overflowed with warmth and abundant emotion. The musicians certainly rose to Mahler’s indication of Sehr germächlich. Conductor and musicians played the music with an overwhelming sense of flow, making the music sound like it was drawn from a single breath from beginning to end. Even the dramatic outburst at rehearsal 6 (Energisch bewegt) could not dispel the overall mood. The quiet transition back to the Ländler at rehearsal 12 was simply magical, and the arrival of the beautiful legato theme by the violins had a real feeling of inevitability to it. Mehta’s timing of the ending of the movement was done to perfection. 

Mahler took us out of our brief reverie with two arresting notes by the timpani, launching us into the Scherzo. Mehta expertly guided the musicians through the many shifting moods of this movement, inviting rather than commanding the orchestra as they traverse the musical landscape. This movement, more than others, is a real showcase for the solo wind and brass players, and the virtuosi of the Los Angeles Philharmonic rose to Mahler’s challenge with aplomb and with flair.

Mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura sang the otherworldly “Urlicht” with great depth of feeling, Mehta and the orchestra supported her with a beautiful cushion of sound. The feeling and mood conjured by Fujimura were matched by the orchestra’s horns and trumpets. Here, Mehta conjured up not just beauty but an incredible depth in the sound, giving the music a truly innigkeit quality.

I remember one critic writing of Mehta’s recording of Mahler’s 3rd symphony, that he really had a special way with Mahler finales. This was evident in how conductor and orchestra played this vast movement with a sense of inevitability and of organic unity. The incredible opening of the movement was not merely dramatic, but awe-inspiring, as if the heavens were really opening. In the grosse Appell section, the music took on a very spacious quality, and Mehta and the orchestra painted a bleak sonic landscape. The brief flute solo was hauntingly played.

Is there any symphonic work that rouses our emotions like the finale of this work? Mehta gauged the many levels of sound carefully, and expertly built the music to its emotional peak. Unlike so many “star” conductors, he did not try to pack a punch and knock us out with maximum volume, but always kept the beauty of both the instrumental and vocal sounds. No matter how shattering the climaxes were – and there were many – there was always the feeling of something in reserve.  The result was a performance that did not seek to “impress”, but rather served as an invitation for everyone to share in communion with both the beauty of the music and the emotion it conveys. 

Friday’s night performance was one where all the elements came together. Perhaps because of Mehta’s preeminence, particular in Los Angeles, it felt that every single member of the orchestra and chorus wanted to give their all. I felt extremely privileged to have experienced this stupendous musical experience. Mr. Mehta seemed to have been much more physically robust than I have seen him in a long time. All we could wish for is many more years of good health, so that he could give us many more memorable performances like the one we witnessed. 

Patrick May

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