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What sort of outreach?

Israel Philharmonic seems to strive for normality in its visit.

February 08, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

THE two concerts by the Israel Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall Monday and Tuesday were unremarkable. Was that the point? It's possible.

This is an orchestra that has reputation for standing for something. Founded 70 years ago as the Palestine Orchestra and first conducted, in anti-Fascism solidarity, by Arturo Toscanini, Israel Philharmonic is tied in with the history of the state. Images of Leonard Bernstein conducting days after liberation in 1948 and on Mt. Scopus in 1976 are among the indelible images of Israel. So too is Zubin Mehta leading a concert to an audience wearing gas masks in 1991, at a time when Jerusalem was under attack from Iraqi Scud missiles.

In their "campaign to end Israeli apartheid," protesters took to the sidewalks Monday and Tuesday to seek freedom through the boycotting of artists. The LAPD and Israeli security insisted the garage underneath the hall was not a safe place to park. Dogs sniffed Disney for bombs.

Israel's troubles travel with its orchestra. So it is perhaps understandable that the ensemble strove for normality in its concerts. The programs on both nights were not meant as a way for Israelis to connect music to the land or the people. Although the tour was part of the orchestra's 70th anniversary celebration, which included gala concerts in Jerusalem in December, neither Israeli music nor music connected to the orchestra (such as that by Bernstein) was part of this U.S. outreach.

Mehta, who has been the Israel Philharmonic's music director since 1969, conducted Monday. Lorin Maazel, who has a 40-year relationship with the orchestra, conducted Tuesday. Both maestros are institutionally wedded to the ensemble. Mehta is music director for life. Maazel, who is current music director of the New York Philharmonic, is an honorary member of the orchestra for life.

Mehta, who has brought the orchestra many times to Southern California over the years, had the slightly more challenging program. Maazel was more interesting simply because this was the first time he had appeared in Disney.

Mehta's concert Monday was, programmatically, mildly intriguing. The evening began with Beethoven's Third "Leonore" Overture, a musical summary of his opera of political liberation, "Fidelio," which has the theme of good triumphing over evil. Next came Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night," an evocation of a love poem, in which a good lover triumphs over jealousy. It was written in 1899, the year after the Jewish composer converted to Lutheranism (he converted back to Judaism many years later). Finally, there was Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique," in which a drug-induced nightmare is just that, something from which one might awaken.

The performances were rough. Mehta conducted in his best command-the-troops manner. The troops more or less followed as they were supposed to, but there were peacocks. A trumpet made sure you heard him in the Berlioz. The trombones' swagger might have had more appeal were it not so persistent.

"Transfigured Night" sounded thin. Arranged by the composer from string sextet to string orchestra, the playing might have been meant to mimic the sinew of the original scoring were it not so scrawny and were Mehta not known for making this work sound voluptuous.

The abrasiveness of the orchestra was the main attraction of "Symphonie Fantastique." Forget Berlioz as a dreamy lover and all that. Mehta plunged in and occasionally he had a bit of fun. But not too much. This is not an orchestra with which a conductor dare loosen his grip.

Maazel had a tight grip as well. Like Mehta, he conducted everything without a score. He got smoother, more polished results, but he tried less. His first half was devoted to Mendelssohn, another Jewish composer who converted to Christianity. "The Hebrides" Overture is a musical romp in Scotland; the "Italian" Symphony, a tour of you-know-where. Maazel skimmed the surface of both. Curiously, he conducted the same symphony less than two weeks ago in Orange County in a livelier reading with Symphonica Toscanini, made up of young Italian musicians.

Maazel also oversaw broad and brash performances of Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" and the second suite to Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe." If Maazel hoped to get some soul out of the Israel Philharmonic by keeping to unusually slow tempos, the tactic didn't work. But it did give him time to build up to shattering, dramatic climaxes in both pieces.

Some things stood out. The last chords of the Tchaikovsky were so drawn out and peculiarly balanced that they sounded modern. Like Mehta, Maazel, who is renowned for his stick technique, pretty much threw his hands in the air and let the trombones do their garish thing in the Ravel. They got our attention. Still, Ravel's sunrise provided no opportunity to smell the flowers. The General Dance at the end was loud and victorious, but at the other extreme from wild abandon.

If we are to accept the Israel Philharmonic as the soul, or at least the sound, of the state, the message from Disney Hall is that these are not times to let down your guard. Not for a second. Not even when playing Schoenberg or Ravel on the other side of the world.

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