Music review: Zubin Mehta returns to the L.A. Philharmonic*
Usually around this time of year, Zubin Mehta pays a visit to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Thursday night he did again, and as always with Mehta, Walt Disney Concert Hall was full, and the crowd a bit older, more conservative and better dressed than normal. For all its staking out the orchestra-of-tomorrow territory, a grounding is needed to break new ground, and the Philharmonic and its audience know a little something about tradition.
It has now been nearly 49 years since the orchestra daringly invited Mehta to be its music director, and he was 26 when he began in 1962 (two years younger than Gustavo Dudamel is today). No other orchestra in America can boast this kind of half-century association with a conductor.
That also means, of course, that just about any program Mehta chooses will come with plenty of history, and Thursday’s -- which repeats tonight, Saturday and Sunday and began with Webern’s Passacaglia, Opus 1 -- happened to be especially interesting.
In his autobiography, “The Score of My Life,” Mehta notes that the first piece he ever conducted in Los Angeles was Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra when he made his debut here as a last-minute substitute for Fritz Reiner in January 1961.
Mehta also says that it was the first Webern ever performed in Los Angeles. In fact, Georg Solti had conducted the Passacaglia 10 months earlier. But Solti’s concert is easily forgotten. The Hungarian conductor was to have become music director of the orchestra the next year, but Mehta’s first engagement so excited the management that he was immediately asked to be Solti’s associate conductor. Solti wasn’t consulted in this decision and resigned in outrage. The rest is history.
I don’t know what the orchestra’s Webern sounded like back then, but the Passacaglia, written in 1908 with its eloquent counterpoint and rapt late Romantic expression, was beautifully played and shaped Thursday.
Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which was next on the program, might well have been accompanied by an L.A. Philharmonic “March of Time” newsreel. The concerto was written in 1931 and was first performed in the composer’s native Hungary under the baton of Otto Klemperer in 1933, a few months before he sailed to America to become music director of the L.A. Philharmonic.
But it was Mehta who conducted the first L.A. performance of the concerto in 1962, during his first months as music director. The soloist was György Sándor, a close friend of Bartók. The soloist Thursday was Yefim Bronfman, so there is more history to relate.
Mehta was Bronfman’s first important champion in the mid-‘70s. In 1993, Bronfman recorded the Bartók Second Concerto with the L.A. Philharmonic at UCLA. Esa-Pekka Salonen, finishing up his first season as music director, conducted and that was the beginning of their close friendship. Last week, the L.A. Philharmonic’s recording of Salonen’s Piano Concerto, which was written for Bronfman, was nominated for a Grammy, and this season Bronfman is a one of the orchestra’s On Location artists.
To say that Bronfman and Mehta all but sailed through the Bartók Thursday is no slight. This happens to be one of the most virtuosic concertos in the standard repertory and Bronfman’s playing was a finely spun whirl of notes that verged on the unbelievable.
There was excellent, crisp playing from the Philharmonic brass. In the slow movement, the strings shimmered. Timpanist Joseph Pereira was the concerto’s exhilarating heartbeat. But it was impossible to take one’s eyes or ears off the bear-like, protean pianist, who has both technical brawn and a glittery grace. He can usually be counted on for an encore. This time it was Schumann’s “Arabesque,” and it was exquisite.
The evening ended with Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica.” Mehta’s Beethoven, during his L.A. years, was often criticized for being showy and shapeless. But he’s matured over the years that have seen him as music director of the New York Philharmonic and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. And maybe some of us have as well.
I didn’t care for his Beethoven back then, but I found this “Eroica” refreshingly concise. The playing was clean. Phrases were expertly sculpted. It is true that Mehta has probably never met a climax he didn’t approve of, but there was no funny business.
The orchestra sounded gorgeous, especially the rich but still bracing quality of the lower strings. That’s a Mehta sound that no other conductor can quite match. At 73, he still has his dynamism and punches out sharp attacks with military precision and might as he always has.
But Mehta has also achieved an elegance and balance that tempers ostentation. This was the Beethoven of experience, of a master. It is good to have him back, and I hope something special is being planned for his upcoming 50th anniversary with the orchestra.
-- Mark Swed
Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Pre-concert talks one hour before. Limited ticket availability, call (323) 850-2000. www.laphil.com.
*An earlier version of this review said that Mehta was 27 when he began as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He was 26.
Photo: Conductor Zubin Mehta with pianist Yefim Bronfman at Walt Disney Concert Hall Thursday night. Credit Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times