Israel Philharmonic celebrates 75 years with a stop in Seattle

Zubin Mehta

By Philippa Kiraly

Concertgoers to the performance at Benaroya Hall Saturday night by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra had to pass a small group of pickets who presumably were Palestine sympathizers. Surprisingly there was also a noticeable police presence even after the picketers had gone, during intermission, and after the concert was over. All was peaceful, however, and nothing detracted from an excellent performance.

Tumultuous applause greeted conductor Zubin Mehta as he walked out on stage. The orchestra and Mehta are both rising 75 years old. Mehta first conducted it at age 25, and became its permanent conductor in his early thirties. It was clear throughout the evening that he knew the orchestra very well and that they knew him. His conducting was relaxed, even when he was eliciting intensity from the players. Their playing never felt forced, either.

On the program, Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3 and Mahler’s great Symphony No. 5 bracketed two short works by Webern which occupied the middle like astringent palate cleansers. The choice was excellent. This was not Webern at his driest or most difficult to absorb. The Passacaglia, Op. 1 was in comfortably familiar style, with the repeated bass line and very short variations above. These still had vestiges of 19th century romanticism with a smidgen of schmaltz in a violin solo, but the tonality was a leap to the future. The composer’s Six Pieces, equally short and from only a few years later, are much dryer, but still an accessible work of fascinating textural juxtapositions, sometimes ethereal and whispering, others with low, very soft rumbling, as of the earth.

Webern works for the listener if the conductor and the musicians understand the music from inside and can convey it, and this was so in these performances, the result being enlightening and well worth a hearing.

The shifting drama of Beethoven’s “Leonore” was splendidly realized from the first off stage trumpet, with emotions and contrasts vividly shown but always classical in approach.

The orchestra changed concertmasters for the Mahler, and a couple of principal players also. The performance of this rich and expansive piece ranged from the angst and railing, the demons, of the first couple of movements, to acceptance and finally, to the sunny last movement with its jaunty little melody and finally, peace of mind. It was easy in this transparent presentation to hear inner voices and follow Mahler’s endlessly imaginative ideas.

This was masterly music making, with plenty of intensity, vigor, excitement and exuberance where indicated, but otherwise relaxed with often a floating tone. Mehta allowed the music to bloom whether in joy, in peace or in grief. All sections are strong, with notably fine work from brass, woodwinds and harp.

It’s a wonderful orchestra. Let’s hope they return to Seattle.

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