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Review: Mehta, Vienna and Disney

March 4, 2009 |  2:00 pm

Mehta

Anyone pulling into the underground entrance to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday night couldn’t miss a large Audi with the license plate M8A.  One guess who’s back in town.

Zubin Mehta was on hand to conduct Bruckner, something he’s been doing on a regular basis in Los Angeles for nearly half a century.  During his 16 seasons as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, his sonic ideal was the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic he had heard as a student in the Austrian capital during the '50s, and he did a credible job of re-creating it in his Bruckner performances here.

But Tuesday, as the newly slimmed-down 72-year-old conductor stood onstage to receive an enthusiastic ovation for a breathtaking performance of the Ninth Symphony, Mehta quieted the applause and said to the audience, “Since 1962, I have been dreaming to play for you with this orchestra.”  The orchestra was the Vienna Philharmonic, making its Disney debut.  Although Mehta has toured with these players on many occasions and was made honorary conductor of the ensemble in 2004, this was their first time together on the West Coast.

Vienna's leading orchestra has a reputation for being the most consistent in the world.  The consistency lies in the silken beauty of its tone and in the self-governing ensemble’s supposed stubbornness in maintaining an unbroken link with its history.  The orchestra does not have a music director but rather entrusts guest conductors with the sacred privilege of soaking up the Vienna sound.

Instruments in each section, from first desk to last, are remarkably alike in tone.  The ever-so-smooth winds, the honeyed brass, the creamy strings blend magically.  The orchestra takes no chances with its sound, going so far as to have extra violins hanging on some stands, just in case a string breaks. The Vienna Philharmonic has always expected to be recognized no matter the conductor, the hall or even the repertory.

The players haven’t lost their capacity for producing great gobs of trademark smoothness or for making Bruckner glow with a special radiance.  But the Vienna character isn’t as sacred as it once was.  Pierre Boulez gets a Bruckner from these players that is as clean as a whistle and in which all the parts fit with Cartesian precision, while Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s edgy conducting has them sounding as though they were learning the scores for the first time.

And, yes, the Vienna Philharmonic is finally beginning to make good on its decade-old promise to hire women.

Mehta’s Ninth had, for an Angeleno who grew up on the conductor’s Bruckner, a not unfamiliar ring.  Indeed, what the three movements of this unfinished symphony (the composer died in 1896 while working on the Finale) demonstrated Tuesday was a Mehta sound.  That sound was created in the '60s, when he brought new glamour to an already Vienna-influenced L.A., where Schoenberg and film-world émigrés had held court.

Now, with the Viennese players, Mehta punches up the volume and turns up the treble.  When he gets to the climaxes, he as much as pulls out the famous vial of ultra-hot sauce he is said to always have with him and sprinkles it on sonic Wiener schnitzel.

The Vienna Philharmonic did not come off as flawless in Disney, which has a more revealing acoustic than the orchestra’s fabled home, the Musikverein.  Having just arrived Sunday night from four nights in the equally accommodating Carnegie Hall, the players were also at a disadvantage.  Their instruments had been placed on a later flight that was delayed because of a snowstorm, and the instruments didn't get to Disney until an hour before the performance.  Borrowed instruments from the L.A. Philharmonic were at the ready.

Still, a bit of blare or brightness was hardly enough to diminish the overall rapturous quality of the performance.  Mehta knocked out the Scherzo rhythms and let the Adagio burn with intensity and then die out, leaving Disney seemingly enveloped in a golden glow.

The first half of the program, though, was inexplicable.  Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Serenade” was played more beautifully than I might have imagined possible but it was, for an important occasion, a trifle.  Four early orchestra songs by Joseph Marx were not among this Romantic 20th century Viennese composer’s most intriguing or advanced -- Richard Strauss came to mind.  In better Marx, early Schoenberg comes to mind.  Soprano Angela Maria Blasi was the unremarkable, if capable, soloist, but the orchestra, as always, remained the center of attention.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Zubin Mehta conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in its Walt Disney Concet Hall debut Tuesday. Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times

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