Zubin Mehta returned to LA’s Disney Hall on Oct. 30 in his annual pilgrimage with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to cap off their 2012 American tour with a concert of classical and romantic warhorses, including the Symphony No. 3 in D Major, D. 200 by Schubert, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 by Chopin, with Yuja Wang as soloist, and the Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op 68 by Brahms.
After the obligatory national anthems of both the United States and Israel, Mehta launched into the Schubert, a youthful work composed when he was just 18 in 1815, a year during which he composed more than 200 works. The Third Symphony is very compact and full of Schubertian melodies and rhythmic motifs. Mehta knows the symphonic repertoire like the back of his hand, and his smiles during this 25-minute work suggested that he is very fond of it. Also, as it was the only piece on the program in a major key, it provided an upbeat opening that did not place too many demands on the audience. The orchestra, probably needing little direction from their longtime music director, played very tightly. And Mehta, as he always does, kept the different sections in perfect balance.
Because of the length of the first half, almost immediately after the Schubert, the Steinway grand was rolled out, a few musicians left the stage, and then Wang walked onstage with Mehta for a performance of the Chopin. The last time Wang was in town, she performed the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major (see http://culturespotla.com/2011/11/conlon-conducts-la-phil-with-yuja-wang/), a concerto with a lot of pianistic fireworks. This time, she performed the more reflective and less showy Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 (actually the second to be written, but the first to be published). Like the Schubert symphony, the Chopin concerto was written when the composer was in his teens. Of course, since Schubert and Chopin both died in their thirties, these works could be seen as more mature relative to other composers.
If anyone was expecting Wang to be more reserved because she was playing Chopin, they were in for a surprise. First, let us note that Mehta knows how to accompany a soloist. There was never a time when Wang was playing that the orchestra overshadowed her. In fact, Mehta erred on the quiet side with some of the most muted orchestral playing in a concerto that I’ve ever heard. The result was a gift to the audience who could hear every note from Wang’s nimble fingers.
Mehta and Wang took liberties with the tempo and dynamics in the Chopin. At times, the piece was played at breakneck speed, perhaps because it showed off Wang’s almost super-human technique. But not only did she nail the complex passages at that speed, she also demonstrated the most delicate of touches too, at times letting her little finger linger on a note for the sustain which could be heard until its dying breath in the wonderfully sensitive Disney Hall. All of this in lesser hands would not have worked. But these artists pulled it off in a stirring performance. Also, kudos to IPO principal bassoonist, Daniel Mazaki, for his sensitive playing with Wang in the second movement.
Wang rewarded the audience’s ovation with an encore of the Chopin Waltz in C# minor Op. 64, No.2, which, in a relatively short three and a half minutes, displayed some of the dynamic variation we witnessed in the concerto.
What can one say about the Brahms Symphony No. 1 that hasn’t been said? Or for that matter, how can one play the Brahms differently than it has been played before? Maestro Mehta has undoubtedly directed this great first symphony by a relatively mature (43-year-old) composer countless times, as his fluent direction suggests. He could have selected a more contemporary piece to conclude the program. But all one has to do is listen to an impassioned performance like the one Mehta and the IPO delivered on Tuesday night to understand why conductors continue to program it. With its juxtaposition between the emotional intensity of the first movement and Adagio of the fourth movement and the beautiful Andante sostenuto second movement with its soaring melodies to the famous horn call and melody in the fourth movement, Brahms’ First Symphony remains as popular as ever. And Mehta and the IPO, who have surely performed this piece many times during what the maestro affectionately calls their “marriage” of 50 years, delivered a performance that revealed all the grandeur of the work with wonderful solos by the IPO principals.
Too bad for those audience members who left after intermission because they missed an inspired and deeply personal performance of Brahms’ First Symphony.
Zubin Mehta returns to Disney Hall for a 50th Anniversary Concert with the LA Phil Dec. 13-16. He will conduct the same program that inaugurated his tenure as music director of the LA Phil with pieces by Mozart, Hindemith and Dvorak. For tickets and information, visit www.laphil.com.