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MUSIC REVIEW : Mehta Leads Mahler Marathon

August 28, 1993|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Summertime, and the list'nin' is easy,

Planes are buzzin'

And the picnics ain't dry. . . .

It was another nifty night for whooping it up with friends, both familiar and strange. It was a great night for competitive dining under the stars, and for bottle-bouncing down the concrete steps. It was a balmy and busy night for aficionados, both amused and bemused, of air-traffic non-control.

It might have been a terrific night for a concert, too. For something light and breezy. Something puny and popsy, for eine kleine hum-along Musik .

But matters didn't quite work out that way at Cahuenga Pass on Thursday. For reasons unknown, Zubin Mehta and the visiting Israel Philharmonic seized the occasion to attack the spiritual sprawl of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 in C minor, a.k.a. "Resurrection." The entire, lofty, solemn, subtle, plaintive, contemplative, zonking, uninterrupted, five-movement thing--with nothing else on the agenda except the "Star-Spangled Banner" and "Hatikva."

Holy Bowly.

This wasn't the first time the management has tried to explore the possibilities of symphonic profundity and ultimate uplift in the not-so-great outdoors. Carlo Maria Giulini once ventured the pieties of the Verdi Requiem in the same inhospitable locale. Simon Rattle conducted the Mahler Second in al fresco Hollywood just three summers ago, but it should be remembered that the itinerant Briton decided to clear the collective throat and soothe the savage breast with the pretty, albeit incongruous, platitudes of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto.

According to official tabulation, 10,110 patrons showed up for Mehta's "Resurrection." That's 114 more than Rattle's attracted. One had to wonder, however, how many came specifically for this particular agenda and how many came simply because the subscription tickets said this was Thursday. The noisy parade of early escapees suggested one of two possibilities: either 1) a lot of music lovers wanted to visit the restrooms, or 2) the heavyweight Mahler marathon wasn't exactly expected or desired in all quarters.

So, apart from all that, how was the performance?

Fair.

Mahler has always brought out the best in Mehta. He doesn't linger over subtle details as do some of his great Germanic colleagues and rivals. Until the ultimate cadence looms, he prefers forward momentum to deliberate grandeur. There's nothing wrong with any of that.

One has to admire his sense of architecture and his willingness to leave the pathos unexaggerated. One has to be moved by the quiet lyrical flow he brings to the extended Landler and by the quirky charm he finds in St. Anthony's sermon to the fishes. One has to be impressed by the subdued mystery with which he illuminates the "Urlicht," and by the cataclysmic agonies and cathartic ecstasies he defines in the final "Auferstehung."

To realize his good intentions, however, he might need an audience willing and able to concentrate as well as listen. He also might need better performing forces than those heard on this troubled occasion.

The Israel Philharmonic played with plenty of gemutlich warmth and with ample, aggressive force. The tone tended to be rough, however. The instrumental edges sounded frayed. The incidental solos flirted with insecurity if not danger. The blend of choirs often emerged ragged. The strings sounded mushy, the brass strident. Precision was a sometime thing.

Perhaps the players were distracted by the strange conditions out front. Perhaps they were tired (this was their third Bowl concert in as many days). Perhaps they were disconcerted by the climate (the gentlemen doffed their customary formal-black jackets in favor of white shirt-sleeves). Perhaps Mahler isn't their forte. Perhaps the microphones were unkind.

Perhaps it was just one of those nights. . . .

Florence Quivar sang the exposed alto solos with obvious feeling, but she was all but inaudible at one dynamic extreme and a bit unsteady at the other. Solveig Kringelborn--Countess Almaviva-to-be at the Music Center Opera--had difficulty floating the ethereal lines that should signal benediction in the last movement.

The most consistently successful contribution came from the Los Angeles Master Chorale, presumably trained by Paul Salamunovich. From the resonant pianissimo of the initial unaccompanied entrance to the rapturous fortissimo of the last lavishly orchestrated apostrophe of hope, the choir proved that it commands the ideal combination of talent, technique and spirit for this massive challenge. It was heartening.

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