After several curtain calls following a glorious performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony by the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra at Disney Hall on Tuesday night, the conductor, Zubin Mehta, held up his hand to quiet the cheering audience and told them that he had dreamt of playing for them with the Vienna Philharmonic since 1962.
In two different concerts on consecutive nights this past week, Mehta led the renowned orchestra in programs whose highlights were two great ninth symphonies by composers who lived in Vienna: Anton Bruckner who had moved there relatively late in his life, and Franz Schubert who was born and who died there.
The signature piece on Tuesday night was the Symphony No. 9 by Bruckner in D minor. With the exception of a couple of missed notes in the horns — unfortunately at the worst possible time at the end of the Adagio when the horns must hold a high F# pianissimo for the final four measures — the orchestra played flawlessly. The tempo in Scherzo was a bit slow for my taste (even slower than Carlo Maria Giulini’s 1989 performance with this same ensemble on Deutsche Grammophon), but not so slow that it really mattered.
For me, it is difficult to comment critically on the performance because I am a Brucknerd, and like most Brucknerds, the chance to hear the Ninth performed by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta in Disney Hall is as close as it gets to a religious experience. That the symphony has that effect isn’t entirely accidental as Bruckner, who had grown up as a church organist and who had composed a fair amount of sacred music, wrote music to carry the listener away. Of course, I wasn’t the only Brucknerd in attendance on Tuesday night. You could tell some of them from the way they were moving to the pile-driving rhythms during the Ninth Symphony’s Scherzo.
The programming of the first half of the concert, which included Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade and four songs by Joseph Marx, however, was puzzling. Although the performances were fine, compared to the drama and grandiosity of the Ninth they seemed insignificant. But maybe that was the point: not to make too many demands on the audience in preparation for the Bruckner.
Wednesday night’s concert was more balanced. The first half contained a stirring performance of Wagner’s “Rienzi” overture, followed by a fine reading of the Chopin Second Piano Concerto in F Minor with Lang Lang as the soloist, with the second half devoted to another “great” ninth symphony, that of Franz Schubert.
At 27 years of age, Lang Lang has already been a superstar for several years, and in the Chopin, he displayed the technical wizardry and flair that earned him that reputation, though perhaps to a fault. To be fair, however, he showed that he could also play with delicacy, especially in the Larghetto.
Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic’s performance of the Schubert was exactly what one would expect and want from the orchestra of the composer’s hometown. The performance was tight from the opening horns to the final sforzando diminuendo. Mehta often showed his pleasure with the orchestra’s playing with smiles; he clearly enjoyed their performance as much as the audience did.
But let’s be real, even with Lang Lang on the program, the real stars were Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic. In case you didn’t already know, Los Angeles classical music fans love their favorite son, Zubin Mehta, who was Music Director of the LA Phil between 1962 and 1978, and was named Honorary Conductor of both the LA Phil and the Vienna Philharmonic. He’s the only conductor I’ve ever seen who elicits cheers and bravos from an audience when he walks out on stage even before he lifts his baton. But he clearly feels at home here, and this week, like a man bringing his lover home to meet his family for the first time, Mehta brought this orchestra home to meet his family in LA.