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Grab-bag Program With Leona Mitchell : Mehta & Israel Philharmonic

August 21, 1986|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is taking a well-deserved vacation this week. That, however, doesn't signal silence under the stars at Hollywood Bowl. While the overworked Angelenos are enjoying a little R&R, two visiting orchestras are filling the festive gap.

The Israel Philharmonic under the direction of everyone's favorite Parsi conductor, Zubin Mehta, has inherited the serious (everything is relative) duties of the mid-week concerts. Come Friday, the San Diego Symphony under David Atherton will take over the circus antics associated with the annual Tchaikovsky Would-Be Spectacular.

Tuesday night--a very balmy Tuesday night--it was just like old times. Mehta, Los Angeles' gift to New York, was back where it all began for him more than two decades ago, and he chose a grab-bag program to commemorate the occasion.

The skies were alive with the sound of airplanes. Guests in the upper regions played their favorite game: Bounce the Wine Bottle Down the Concrete Steps. The over-amplification system played a game of its own: Bounce the Tones From the Shell to the Back Wall and Back.

Plus ca change . . . .

The evening opened with a nice nationalistic gesture: Paul Ben Haim's "To the Chief Musician," a.k.a. "Metamorphoses for Orchestra" (1958). It is knowingly crafted, stubbornly convoluted, splashily eclectic. The Israelis played it with authority.

Next came a batch of Verdi arias, three spinto showpieces that brought out the best--well, nearly the best--in Leona Mitchell.

The collaboration began a bit edgily as the soprano and conductor engaged in a little tempo tug-o'-war in "Morro, ma prima in grazia" from "Un Ballo in Maschera." She wanted to go fast. He wanted to go slow. He won.

Aesthetic perception was hardly enhanced by echoes that constantly embellished the vocal line. Although Mitchell commands a really radiant voice, hearing every one of her tones twice in rapid succession suggested too much of a good thing.

As far as one could tell under the sonic circumstances, the soloist sang "Ernani, involami" with urgency and reasonable coloratura fluency. In "Pace, pace, mio Dio" from "La Forza del Destino" she showed a firm command of the wide range, the arching phrase, the lyrical indulgence and the dramatic climax.

Gershwin's "Summertime" served as the predictable, stylistically jolting encore. Unfazed by a premature entrance, Mitchell held to her vocal guns, eventually met the maestro at the proper bar line, and caressed every languid sentiment.

At symphony time, Mehta and his virtuosic ensemble turned to the soulful rhetoric and rousing razzle of the Tchaikovsky Fourth.

Despite distinctly leisurely pacing, the first two movements were imbued with majesty and nicely muted pathos. The Scherzo was plucked with speed and delicacy, the finale dispatched con brio .

After the overwrought distortions of Leonard Bernstein's "Pathetique" with Mehta's other orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the mellowness of this Tchaikovsky proved especially comforting.

An audience of 11,438 applauded lustily at all opportunities, including the inappropriate ones.

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