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Give the maestro another medal

Zubin Mehta receives an award at Disney Hall and rewards audience with a standout concert.

January 07, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

For Zubin Mehta's detractors, the dislike can begin with his entrance on stage, with the imperial bearing, the head-high hauteur. In his 16 seasons as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he was accused of flash and superficiality so often that he seemed to have invented the style. During his 13-year tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, the town's tough-guy and tough-gal critics blamed him for letting the ensemble all but go to ruin.

These charges are not without warrant. I've made a couple of them myself over the years. But there is more to Mehta than that, as his amazing resilience attests. For one thing, he has never lost the admiration of the Los Angeles audience nor the Philharmonic musicians, no matter how many testy reviews.

The town took to him in 1962 as a brash twentysomething new kid on the block, and it takes to him still as he approaches 70, erect, regal and glamorous as ever. I don't know if it is love, but something strong and evidently indestructible runs deep between him and this community.

And frankly, his appearances here in recent years have been so impressive that, like everyone else, I, too, look forward to them.

Thursday night when Mehta swaggered onto the stage of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the audience burst into rapturous applause. Even celebrities came out for the occasion: Sidney Poitier here, Don Rickles there.

The program was long and richly satisfying. It opened with Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto, superbly played by a young soloist from Georgia, Lisa Batiashvili. It concluded with a glorious, sensory overloaded account of Bruckner's monumental Eighth Symphony.

In between, the Philharmonic held a small ceremony in which Mehta was presented with the distinguished service award from the orchestra's board and honored as a favorite son by the supervisors of Los Angeles County. In his remarks, Mehta mentioned he has just finished writing his autobiography. I hope it's juicy -- he's been around the block a time or two.

Mehta has also been around the block with Bruckner's Eighth more than a few times, and it is plenty juicy. This is Bruckner's grandest statement and a slow performance can easily sustain a full program in itself. If you hate Bruckner, this is the piece to really loathe, with its endless sequences, its slow movement that is so very -- and so exquisitely -- long. You need a strong stomach to endure waves upon waves of Bruckner's chromatic harmonies that keep you suspended, upended endlessly. And then there is the sheer volume of Bruckner's wall-of-brass sound, in which Mehta so relishes.

How wonderful it all was Thursday. Surprisingly little has changed in Mehta's interpretation of the symphony over the years. His timing -- about 80 minutes this evening -- wasn't far off from his never-reissued-on-CD 1978 recording of the symphony with the Philharmonic.

The style is the same. The boldness remains. Mehta continues to exhibit a slight impatience for climaxes. He hasn't gotten over his momentary thrusting of the tempo when he nears the end of a movement or a major section. He underlines what he likes.

What has changed are very small things. A little more attention to detail. An ever so slight refinement of instrumental balance to produce a more luxurious sound. A touch more trust in the music to take care of itself.

But these things make all the difference. Just as a superior fit and polish makes one want to get inside a luxury car to see what it feels like, Mehta suggests that if the music making is of high enough quality, a listener can't help but want to get inside the symphony.

Disney Hall, I think, gives Mehta a bit of trouble. He opened the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1964 and in many ways he thrived in it. The problematic acoustics meant he didn't need to hold back. In Disney, he must continually check himself.

But Mehta is also an adaptable musician. He conducted from memory, even though the Philharmonic's new seating arrangement of dividing the violins meant he had to be alert to perhaps unfamiliar cueing. And what at first seemed too loud soon started to sound exactly right.

The Prokofiev concerto demonstrated an aspect of Mehta for which he has long been renowned -- his sensitivity as an accompanist. Batiashvili, who had a dark, dominating tone, is alternatively firebrand and soulful lyricist. The alternating is not predictable nor particularly logical, but it is very exciting.

Often, she gives the impression that she is improvising on the spot, and Mehta was with her every second. No matter how much she challenged him, she couldn't lose him. This cat-and-mouse game might have intimidated a lesser soloist. For one with Batiashvili's sure technique and original mind, it proved liberating. A familiar concerto became new music.


Los Angeles Philharmonic

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall,

111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 tonight and 2 p.m. Sunday

Price: $15 to $129

Contact: (323) 850-2000 or

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