Mehta, Israel Philharmonic bring venerable musical partnership to the Arsht Center

By Lawrence Budmen

Zubin Mehta conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra Sunday night at the Arsht Center.

Zubin Mehta conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra Sunday night at the Arsht Center.

The long artistic relationship between conductor Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra may set a world record. When Mehta steps down as the orchestra’s music director in 2019, he will have held the chief conductorship of the ensemble for fifty years.

As part of an ongoing series of farewell tours, Mehta and the Israelis displayed their mastery of symphonies by Mozart and Schubert at the Arsht Center Sunday night.

Since Mehta first appeared as a guest conductor with the orchestra in the mid 1960′s, he has seen the ensemble change, both in its membership and musical character. When he first came, the orchestra was still predominantly comprised of Holocaust survivors and refugees from Western Europe. Later he saw members of the early classes of Jerusalem’s Rubin Academy (now the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music) join the orchestra’s ranks. In the 1980′s and 90′s a large influx of Russian musicians enhanced the string section. Today the orchestra’s membership is an amalgamation of native Israelis and musicians who have come to the country from around the world, and the orchestra plays at an international level.

Sadly, Mehta, 81, is now rather frail. He walked slowly on and off stage and twice had to be helped off the podium by his players. His once very dynamic and flashy podium manner has become minimalist. But the rapport between the conductor and ensemble is so strong, often that was all that was needed, as the musicians responded to Mehta’s slightest gesture.

The program opened with a suite from the 2011 Academy Award nominated film Footnote by the Israeli composer Amit Poznansky. This is decidedly lightweight fare, reminiscent of Shostakovich’s Jazz Suites in its mixture of waltz and dance rhythms with a twist of irony. It showcased the ensemble’s whipcrack brass and percussion section, making a lively curtain raiser.

Then it was down to the evening’s serious musical offerings. Few of Mozart’s symphonies suffer from heavy-handed performances as much as the Symphony No. 36 in C Major (“Linz”). Utilizing reduced orchestral forces, Mehta’s reading was light on its feet and richly detailed. 

This was definitely not a period-instrument performance. The strings played with full, burnished tone and the wind sound had a warm and distinctive character. From the first bars of the Allegro spiritoso, there was an incisive lift and spirit in the playing. The violinist-conductor Alexander Schneider’s declaration that all of Mozart’s music is operatic proved much in evidence as Mehta phrased the Poco adagio as one long aria that would not have been out of place in The Marriage of Figaro. There was a sense of wit in the slight hesitations Mehta brought to his robust version of the Menuetto and the final Presto was fleet and vigorous. Throughout the symphony Mehta brought forth the bass lines and inner voices and the contrasts of loud and soft dynamics were finely contoured.

Robert Schumann called Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major “the symphony of heavenly length” but in Mehta’s judiciously paced performance, the work’s fifty-minute trajectory hardly seemed long. Seating eight winds around the podium, in front of the strings, gave welcome prominence to the oboe, clarinet and bassoon solos throughout the score. The wind sound was bright and clear but blended well into the  mellow corporate ensemble sonority. Mehta built the pivotal first movement organically with a natural flow that culminated in the brass chorale reprise of the opening horn theme. Full orchestral tuttis were strongly controlled and never raucous.

Mehta infused the principal theme of the Andante con moto with folklike energy and spirit and brought a measured eloquence to the stately secondary motif. The strings’ high precision and distinctive warmth of tone was particularly notable. 

There was a rollicking and festive quality to the Scherzo with the wind-dominated trio section a particular delight. Mehta kept the vital pulse of the final Allegro vivace brisk and unflagging as the themes flowed forth at whirlwind clip. Dynamic contrasts and solo instrumental details were emphatically etched.

A near-capacity audience was on its feet as soon as soon as Mehta cut off the final chord of the Schubert symphony. There were two encores -Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance No. 8 in G minor, assayed with bucolic lightness, and a bubbly traversal of the Overture to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Mehta then led his musicians offstage. The relationship between this conductor and orchestra has been unique and the entire concert demonstrated that venerable, collaborative spirit at its best.

The Arsht Center Classical Series continues with Pinchas Zukerman conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Weber’s Overture to Der Freischütz, Elgar’s Serenade for Strings and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and as soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 at  8 p.m. January 17, 2018 at the Arsht Center in Miami. arshtcenter.org  305-949-6722

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Mon Nov 6, 2017
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