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ON DVD

Mehta, over the top and oh-so good

October 19, 2008|Mark Swed

THE FIRST thing you notice are Zubin Mehta's sideburns, as he stands on the podium in a newly released 1977 video of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, about to give the downbeat for Mozart's Bassoon Concerto. A tall, bearded young man, David Breidenthal, who plays with fluid elegance, is the soloist; he retired from the orchestra last year, somewhat wizened but still a terrific player. Although videos of orchestra concerts are rarely the most musically illuminating way to hear them, what with all the distracting camera moves, they do provide the useful context of time and place.

This is of particular interest when it comes to the Philharmonic. In 1977, Mehta was in his 13th and second-to-last season as music director. He was still plenty dashing. His Philharmonic was a band of super-quick responders playing a program that also contained a quick-witted Bartok Concerto for Orchestra and an unusually fiery version of Dvorak's usually more bucolic Eighth Symphony. The Philharmonic, after 16 years with Esa-Pekka Salonen, is still such a band. But the sound has changed considerably.

Mehta's model was the warm golden tone of the Vienna Philharmonic, and he achieved a pretty good New World facsimile. The current orchestra is more varied in its color palette, more transparent, more immediately vibrant, more new era. Mehta's Bartok has swagger; it's an exciting, well-prepared performance. His Dvorak is occasionally over the top (there is also a showoffy "Carnival" Overture). He is cocky, of course, but the performance takes on an intriguing and surprisingly appealing historical resonance. Just look at the hair on the players. These were the garish '70s, and this is garish Dvorak perfectly in tune with the times. Even the Pavilion doesn't look quite so unfortunate if you can put yourself back in a '70s mind-set.

One comparison, though, cannot be escaped. Music director-designate Gustavo Dudamel got that designation after conducting Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra at his first Walt Disney Concert Hall appearance in 2007, almost exactly 30 years after the Mehta performance the DVD immortalizes. Dudamel's performance has also been preserved -- as a Los Angeles Philharmonic iTunes download. And what a difference three decades makes. The swagger is ever greater, the playing arrestingly more vivid. Still, Mehta's DVD sonics have it all over last year's download technology. Not even Dudamel in Disney can equal the equivalent effect of Mehta in Dorothy when high fidelity is lowered to a minuscule sampling rate.

-- Mark Swed

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