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Review: Israel Philharmonic, rising above differences

On a visit to Disney Hall, Zubin Mehta and the orchestra are flexible but focused.

October 31, 2012|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Zubin Mehta conducts the Israel Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Zubin Mehta conducts the Israel Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

There was no mention of Sandy at the Israel Philharmonic's concert in Walt Disney Concert Hall Tuesday night. It wouldn't have hurt to play a little something in solidarity of the millions dealing with the storm's devastation, the Israelis having just appeared at Carnegie Hall last week. Then again, there was something comforting in an uncompromisingly traditional concert at which business was very much as usual.

The Israel Philharmonic regularly appears in Los Angeles, where the orchestra has considerable support. It is hardly eyebrow-raising to spy a BMW in the Disney parking garage with the vanity plate M8A, Zubin Mehta having been an Angeleno for half a century (he served as the Los Angeles Philharmonic music director from 1962 to 1978 and retains his residence in Brentwood). His association with the Israel Philharmonic goes back nearly as long, and he is its music director for life.

The program's pieces by Schubert, Chopin and Brahms are no strangers to the hall. Nor was the glamorous young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, the evening's soloist. Finally, the demonstrators dogging the orchestra in front of Disney were anticipated. They interpret appearances by Israel's finest orchestra as promoting the government's Palestinian policy.

This is, of course, an ensemble renowned for taking almost anything in stride. Founded as the Palestine Orchestra in 1936 by the Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman in 1936 and composed at first of Jewish musicians fleeing Germany and other Nazi-occupied countries, the Israel Philharmonic has given its most famous concerts while its homeland was under attack. A new documentary about the ensemble, "Orchestra of Exiles" — fascinating despite feeble reenactments of music history — opens on Friday.

This is still somewhat an orchestra of exiles — the player roster is full of Russian and Eastern European names. And it is a notoriously argumentative orchestra with members on all sides of political and religious issues who are not shy about expressing their feelings or fighting for their perceived musical rights. Israel Philharmonic rehearsals are not for the faint of heart.

Yet when these feisty musicians are at their best, as they were Tuesday, they rise above their differences. They listen to each other. They demonstrate respect. They figure out a way to proceed.

Another thing the Israel Philharmonic represents might be the maturing of Mehta. The orchestra has been the constant throughout nearly his entire career. The players clearly revere their Parisi leader from Bombay — they refused to stand for a bow at evenings' end. But they reportedly still give him hard time in rehearsal, and he gives it right back.

For an Angeleno, Tuesday's concert was classic Mehta in the sense that he has not, at 76, mellowed. But he has found a greater focus than he once had. He can now do more with less.

Schubert's Third Symphony, which began the program, was a substitute for Hindemith's "Mathis der Mahler" Symphony played elsewhere on the orchestra's U.S. tour. That will be on Mehta's program with the L.A. Phil in December, when he celebrates the 50th anniversary of his first program as that orchestra's music director.

It was a fast, sleek, dynamic performance, with Mehta emphasizing Schubert's hard edges and youth, and not letting himself get carried away with lyricism. Something of the same could be said of Mehta's performance of Brahms' First Symphony, and that seemed more startling.

Mehta and the Israelis cut through Brahms' thick orchestration. The heavy first movement became lean, transparent and soaring. Dennis Bade in this program note mentions the bucolic character of the third movement, and Mehta created a wondrous atmosphere, almost that of a forest scene out of a Wagner opera.

The big tune at the end of the symphony had a hint of underlying moodiness, a dusky tinting from excellent brass and tart strings. The Israel Philharmonic is unique in its capacity to see dark in the light and the light in the dark, the musicians ever obsessing over the complexity of life.

Wang was more direct in the Chopin. Stylish as ever, she seemed content to let her dazzling finger work stand for itself.

Her left hand was brilliant in fast passages, where she brought out little-noticed figuration with a contemporary rhythmic élan. She loves these days to scale her sound down to a whisper and then kinetically dart through a dynamic blastoff. It's effective if overused.

Mehta is her perfect accompanist. Not only was he attentive to her every fancy, he showed that he can do with the orchestra what she does at the keyboard, that it is fine, for the span of a concerto, to accept a point of view whether it's yours or not.

And that is not business as usual in a stubborn society. Were this band really a political model for Israel, there might be more peace in the Middle East than there is today.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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