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Five concerts, four conductors at different stages of their relationship w/ the LA Phil (part 4 of 4): Zubin Mehta, 50 years later

Zubin Mehta in 1961

Zubin Mehta:  the man, the myth, the legend.

While I’ve had a chance to see the other three conductors profiled in this series fairly early in their relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I was not around to see any of Mr. Mehta’s concerts as Music Director, let alone the ones early in his career.  I only know of his reputation, mostly via the two local critics of note who followed him the longest — Martin Bernheimer and Alan Rich.  They did not often see eye to eye, but when it came to Mr. Mehta’s conducting, they both seemed to have more misgivings than they had praise.  Beyond them, the stories were not that different:  dashing, charismatic  and adventurous on one hand; slick, perhaps even shallow, interpretations on the other.

My first live experience with Mr. Mehta leading the LA Phil (not counting the children’s concerts I attended as a grade schooler) was in a 1994 all-Mozart concert which featured the 32nd and 41st Symphonies and the Davidde Penitente.  I was impressed with neither his music making nor his demeanor.

Many years later, I read a scathing review that Mr. Rich wrote about a Vienna Philharmonic concert here in L.A. that Mr. Mehta conducted, and the late, great music critic’s words brought me back to that ’94 all-Mozart concert with this observation:

“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 stopped shoulders the remnants of a glory that might have been, but which has been too ofen wrongly steered.”  (Alan Rich, “Mehta-phobia,” So I’ve Heard:  March 12, 2009)

In those pre- All is Yar days, I responded on Mr. Rich’s blog with the following comment of my own:

“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.”

His appearances at WDCH this season marked the 50th Anniversary of his inaugural concerts as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  To help commemorate the occasion, Mr. Mehta programmed the same works that he led on his first concerts fifty years ago: Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni, the Hindemith Mathis der Maler Symphony, and the Dvorák Symphony No. 7.

The last time I attended a concert with him conducting was in January 2004 during the opening season of Walt Disney Concert Hall.  It was time to see him again.

It turned out to be a very good concert.  The Hindemith and Dvorák symphonies were directly in his wheelhouse.  The sound  he drew out of the LA Phil was warm and weighty, which suited the two larger works especially well and while not my preferred approach for Mozart, worked well enough there too.

The Dvorák in particular was given a grand treatment, with a spacious Adagio and a freight-train-like Finale.  The orchestra sounded wonderful, though expression occasionally came at the expense of cleanliness.  Once again, Michele Zukovsky played some beautiful solos; when Mr. Mehta pointed at her to take the first solo bow of the evening, she looked around before mouthing, “Oh, me?” and looking genuinely surprised before she finally acknowledged her well-deserved ovation from the audience and the other LA Phil musicians.

More interestingly, Mr. Mehta’s attitude was much less uptight and grumpy than I’d ever seen.  His walk to and from the stage was a bit more relaxed, and he responded to the very loud ovations with no hint of the haughtiness I’ve always associated with him.  He even smiled at the audience and shared laughs with violinists Bing Wang and Shelley Bovyer.  Imagine that.

Random other thoughts:

  • I think the folks that put together the printed programs for the LA Phil have given up entirely on listing the orchestra’s recordings of the relevant evening’s works.  Only the opening weekend’s concerts listed an LA Phil recording (Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Rite of Spring).  Since then — nothing; nada; zilch.  For the record, the orchestra has released a Dvorák 7th with André Previn and the Mathis der Maler Symphony with Mr. Salonen.
  • Am I the only who finds it more than a touch ironic that the Indian Parsi Mr. Mehta is one of the only conductors who still conducts in white tie and tails in an era where an increasing number of conductors — including Vasily Petrenko, Lionel Bringuier, and Mr. Salonen, among a host of others — wear Nehru jackets while conducting, especially when one of the gimmicks used by the LA Phil when they moved into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was to dress its ushers in Nehru jackets.
  • The concert version of Don Giovanni featured a concert ending written by Busoni.


Los Angeles Philharmonic:  December 15, 2012; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Zubin Mehta, conductor

Mozart:  Overture, Don Giovanni (concert ending arr. Busoni)
Hindemith:  Symphony, Mathis der Maler
Dvorák:  Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70


Photo credit:  photo by Otto Rothschild (1961), from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Archives (via Online Archive of California)

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