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.

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7 Responses to MEHTA-PHOBIA

  1. CK Dexter Haven says:

    “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.”

    Oh my goodness, your description of Mehta is horrifically and magnificently accurate. My wife and I were laughing out loud when we read this because we’ve observed the same thing every time he conducts, but could not put it into words as perfectly as you have. Absolutely brilliant!

    The two of us didn’t start attending LA Phil concerts until the interregnum between the Previn and Salonen eras. The first time we saw Mehta conduct, he walked on stage exactly as you described, and we overheard two nicer blue-haired ladies exchange a conversation that went something like this:
    – “Who is that? I thought Zubin was supposed to conduct?”
    – “I think that is Zubin”
    – “Are you sure? My. He looks . . . he looks older.”
    – “He used to be SO handsome . . . what is he so upset at?”

    Then we watched/heard him drive Mozart’s Davidde Penitente like it was a Mack truck going down a hill. Not pretty, but not as ugly as that initial walk onto stage . . . we now avoid him when we can.

    Thank you so much for your blog, and now for the new format. Many happy years of continued writing!

  2. Alan Rich says:

    Many thanks CK ol’ pal, and how are things in Philadelphia? AR

  3. CK Dexter Haven says:

    They’re quite yar, AR. Thanks for asking . . .

  4. Robert Pincus says:

    Ridiculous repertory — YES, YES, YES. Old, cloddy Bruckner.
    And what associates the VPO with Chopin?

    Who makes repertory decisions for touring orchestras? Did LAPhil management pick what was played from a menu?

    Mehta — Why? Went to Wiener to see who’s conducting this spring — Riccardo Muti, Christoph Eschenbach, Daniel Harding, Christian Thielemann, Lorin Maazel, Simon Rattle, Valery Gergiev, Pierre Boulez and, yes, Mr Mehta. Why not Harding or Thielemann?

    Does Mehta draw US audiences? What was the turn-out at Disney? Given the program and Mehta — wouldn’t have even opted for rush tix.

    Stay well

  5. CK Dexter Haven says:

    Mehta draws well to very well in LA. It’s good for me, because I get good resale value for my tickets when he’s conducting.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been to performances that he’s conducted that I’ve actually enjoyed, but it’s always been stuff like Brahms, Wagner, Strauss, etc., and that isn’t necessarily my favorite stuff.

    As far as your suggestions about Harding or Thielemann . . . I can’t really comment one way or the other about Harding, but I offer up this about Thielemann:

    He was given an impressive two weeks of concerts in 1996 for his premiere in L.A. (Beethoven Coriolan overture & 6th Symphony, Schumann piano concerto first week; Mendelssohn “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” overture, Bartok Viola Concerto, Brahms 2nd Symphony the 2nd week) . . . and then never appeared again in front of the orchestra.

    The reviews were mixed. After the first week, Susan Bliss wrote in the LA Times, “a conductor of brilliance, insights and originality, a born leader who makes music happen,” but “. . . did not cause great polish or smooth finishes in the actual orchestral playing; more often than not, our game instrumental band might have been wondering exactly where, temporally, the conductor’s virtually beatless gestures were.” And that was the good review. The next week, Chris Pasles wrote: “He seemed preoccupied with sheen and evenness; equality of all parts, whether foreground or background, and pointed, undramatic phrasing. He was clearly reaching for an elusive ideal, vaguely in the Furtwangler vein, whom he recalled in the imprecision of his beats and the ensuing raggedness of orchestral entrances, but not much else.”

    I was at one of the nights where he conducted the Brahms 2nd, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen the LA Phil players look so visibly pissed off on stage. Later that night, I spoke with the one of the members of the LA Phil brass section (now retired), and he said many derogatory things, most of which that I won’t repeat, except for this damning closing thought: “That guy isn’t up there for the music, he’s up there for himself.”

    Would love to hear AR’s memories and comments. Or maybe MarK’s, if he’d be willing to share.

  6. MarK says:

    Don’t remember many details about Thielemann, but do recall my general impression – the guy is certainly competent but nothing really special as an interpreter. Some of his subsequent pronouncements – along the lines of “non-German conductors (for all i know he may just as well have said “non-Aryans”) have no business leading German orchestras” – make me miss him even less.
    As for Harding, i personally think that he is a wonderful musician and a very fine conductor. Unfortunately, he was not able to establish effective chemistry with the local band. Nevertheless, if memory serves me right, he led several outstanding performances here. And when i saw him conduct other orchestras, the music-making was always exceptionally good.

  7. Robert Berger says:

    Okay, it’s well known that you can’t stand Mehta’s conducting.
    Fine. But what you wrote wasn’t a review but just a lot of snotty,mean-spirited and gratuitously nasty sniping.
    Please spare us those distasteful ad hominem comments next time.
    It’s ill becoming of a classical music critic.
    I happen to admire Mehta’s conducting a great deal and have long considered him to be the most unjustly maligned and underrated
    conductor around. Mehta isn’t the late Rodney Dangerfield. He really deserves respect.

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