MEHTA-PHOBIA: Now and then you couldn’t help but recognize the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic: in the grandiose oratory of the massed brass that brought the first movement of the Bruckner Ninth to its close; to the trio of the scherzo of the Schubert Ninth, when strings and winds conspired to force open vistas across the Vienna woods, with their ever-so-slightly (“gemütlich”) off-the-beat accents that constitutes the Viennese smile. But the concerts here at Disney were no happy events over all; the programming was ridiculous, and Zubin Mehta was in charge. Program #1 had as its central attraction a set of songs by Joseph Marx. Already in my student years in Vienna — 1953, say — he was one of the last of Vienna’s surviving dinosaurs, those stirrers of the soup-pots in which bubbled the chromatic dregs of Wagnerism mingled with a thin Brahmsian treacle. Herr Marx would perch in his box at the Musikverein, desperate to be noticed; not many did. Last Tuesday a clutch of his songs were sung just okay by a certain Angela Maria Blasi. Next night there was time put to even poorer use in a different fashion the sweet but fatuous F-minor Piano Concerto of Chopin employed as a wind-up toy for the garish talents of Lang Lang, an unconscionable squandering of arguably the world’s finest symphony orchestra as backup for beyond-argument the world’s most tragically wasted potential keyboard virtuoso.
I have dealt with the phenomenon of Mehta often enough; I have come no closer than ever to understanding the circumstances that maintain his career. The essence of the basic symphonic repertory continues to elude him: the achievement of the orchestral balance that might clarify the imponderable scoring in a Bruckner symphony; the line of thought in that music that keeps the music moving forward even when dear old Anton finds it necessary to come to a sudden stop. As for the Schubert Ninth, the major work on the second of the two concerts, I only wonder that some members of that splendid orchestra – whose personnel does, indeed, include a Schubert (Gerald) among its mellifluous violins – do not rise up in protest against a reading of their musical patrimony so stodgy in rhythm, so crude in its orchestral balance. Ah me, I remember all too well the even sadder night back in 1964, when the younger and wetter-behind-the-ears Zubin brought his ruined Los Angeles Philharmonic to a misbegotten Carnegie Hall debut for which neither it nor he was anywhere near ready – propelled by the same misguided civic pride that had pushed Mehta into the job – and wrought the same havoc on the same Schubert Ninth. You could look it up.
At least he was young and exotic then, with those flashing Parsi eyes; if he couldn’t woo the music, he could the influential ladies out front. Now he fixes the world with an angry glare, and oozes his way toward the podium as if he’d just peed in his pants, bearing on his stooped shoulders the remnants of a glory that might have been, but which has been too often wrongly steered.
SATURDAY’S treasures made everything seem right again. In the afternoon the L.A. Opera revived its enchanting 2007 staging of Benjamin Britten’s Noyes Fludde, again somewhat adrift in the vast and acoustically-troubled space of the downtown Cathedral but redeemed by the shared wonderment of the capacity crowds at the two performances. All hail James Conlon, who shaped the musical forces that included a contingent from his own Opera Orchestra, a larger group from Hamilton High and the Colburn School, and Children’s Choruses from all over to sing and to bang on things. All hail Eli Villanueva, under whose direction the Cathedral space was filled with the goofy magic of flying birds on long sticks, an all-but-realistic Ark, and anything else you’d need to bring to life the medieval retelling of the legend of Noah and his Flood.
Britten’s special achievement in this work of 1958 has been to create musical drama that is both simple in its appeal to a young audience and completely valid and interesting to listeners of every age. He continued in this vein with his short “Church Parables” but Noye remains special. Its two adult roles – Mr. And Mrs. Noah – demand strong voices; they were sung here by James Johnson and Beth Clayton, both currently involved in the Ring. The piece lasts about an hour, and at the end you feel completely fulfilled.
At night there was Jacaranda, also in a church – Santa Monica’s First Pres — but one of comfortable size (and also pretty close to jam-packed). The Messiaen centennial celebration continues, with its imaginative excursions around the periphery and an occasional peek into the center. This last was fulfilled with a couple of songs, flown in on the wings of Jacquelynne Fontaine, an enchanting soprano new to us and all the more wondrous for that. She then went on to more familiar realm, the Fifth of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras, the one that starts with the haunting cantilena you’ll never get out of your head, followed by lesser stuff.
Other Villa-Lobos had begun the program, the Rudepoema for solo piano, a continuous essay in irrational virtuosic demands, apparently written as a portrait of Artur Rubinstein (in 1927, when he might have come close to mastering it). A slender, cool chap named Danny Holt mastered the daylights out of it at Jacaranda: a phenomenal performance. Rationality was restored at program’s end, with the marvelously clear-headed Trio of Maurice Ravel, delivered in like manner by string players Tereza Lucia Stanislav, Cecilia Tsan and pianist Robert Edward Thies. All hail them, too.