With his new title of Conductor Emeritus of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta concluded two weeks of concerts this past weekend celebrating the symphonies and concertos of Johannes Brahms. On Friday night, he conducted the LA Phil in Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 with famed violinist Pinchas Zukerman, and the Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90. And on Sunday, Mehta conducted the Phil in Brahms’ Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Op. 103, with Zukerman and his wife, cellist Amanda Forsyth, as soloists, and the Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98.
Mehta, having just had hip surgery and looking older and even more frail than his 82 years, had to be helped on and off the podium and sat in a chair while conducting. Nevertheless, after decades of leading the major orchestras of the world, he knew the music he was conducting and led the orchestra in all four works without a score.
I was very much looking forward to the Violin Concerto — one of my favorite pieces — but, unfortunately, I was disappointed. There wasn’t much energy on display, even by Zukerman, who seemed to be going through the motions of a piece he must have played a hundred times in his long career. Zukerman’s playing was not as dynamic as it has been in the past, and many of the runs seemed to have been broken up to make them easier to play. Moreover, Mehta seemed to follow Zukerman’s lead perhaps a bit too much, to the point of the music in places seeming a bit disjointed. The second movement was an exception, though. Zukerman made the violin sing beautifully just as I imagine Brahms had intended.
For some reason, the Third Symphony had more punch to it. Perhaps it was because there was a bigger orchestra than in the Violin Concerto. Brahms’ Third is his most subtle and serene, even though there are moments of passion and heroism. Still, Mehta gave it more life and added dynamic touches to the calm second and third movements.
Sunday afternoon was different, which was surprising as Mehta, the soloists and the orchestra had played the same concert just the night before and were finishing up two weeks of playing all the symphonies and concertos. But Mehta and the musicians breathed more life into the Concerto in A minor, the so-called “double concerto.” Perhaps this was partly due to Zukerman’s wife, Forsythe, being onstage with him. They were almost perfectly in sync. Still, there was something missing from the dynamic interchange between the soloists and the orchestra in that the solo parts did not have the excitement I was expecting. The overall effect, however, was more satisfying than the Violin Concerto on Friday night.
Perhaps fittingly, the Fourth Symphony was the climax not only to these two concerts, but to the entire two-week series, and maybe even to Mehta’s career, which seems to be winding down.
Mehta obviously had a vision of the Symphony and transformed it from a classically influenced piece (as many of Brahms’ works are) in terms of instrumentation and structure, to a full-fledged Romantic piece of heroic proportions. Mehta took every movement slowly, which in the hands of a lesser conductor would have made the music sound like it was plodding. In Mehta’s hands, however, the music sounded glorious.
I don’t know if we will get a chance to see Mehta again in Los Angeles, but if not, he will be remembered at least by this reviewer for his performance of the Brahms Fourth.
At the end of both concerts the patrons in Disney Hall showed their love for the maestro with cheers and standing ovations, as much for his career and history in Los Angeles as for the performances. It was a fitting “thank you” to a conductor who has given so much to the classical music culture of the city.
—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA