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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Concert Review: How Zubin Got His Groove Back

Or: Bruckner 8, Cell Phones 0.
Cosmic traveler: former New York Philharmonic music director Zubin Mehta.
Playing the final completed composition of a great symphonist can be a daunting task. The job is harder when the composer is Anton Bruckner. All Bruckner symphonies are big, but none is more massive than the mighty Eighth. Its orchestral requirements are huge, and the four movements can last almost an hour and a half.

These performances of the Eighth at the New York Philharmonic feature the return of Zubin Mehta, the orchestra's former music director. (He stepped down in 1991.) This year, Mr. Mehta's younger brother Zarin is due to step down too (as orchestra President) in 2012. Zarin was in attendance at Friday night's concert, in a second tier box alongside current music director Alan Gilbert and acting Artistic Administrator Ed Yim.

Maybe it was the heavy brass upstairs, but the brass-heavy mystic sound-world of this symphony took some time to come into focus on Friday night. The first  theme in the cellos was played forcefully, paving the way for the brass' entrance. With a full complement of eight horns, Wagner tubas, heavy trombones and tuba, this is a lot of music to coordinate. The stentorian thematic statement of the motto theme didn't quite come off as it should, but conductor and orchestra settled in to deliver a potent first movement.

Once the development was reached, Mr. Mehta finally showed the touch with this orchestra that he had displayed early in his 13-year career on the podium of Avery Fisher Hall.  Working without a score, Mr. Mehta clarified and emphasized the drama of this abstract music, with audible references to Wagner's Nibelungs and Valkyries underlined in this interpretation. (All that experience conducting the Ring had clearly paid off.) The first movement rose to a mighty climax and then cut off, building again and leaving the audience breathless.

The second movement more consistent, with Mr. Mehta taking a heavy, broad approach to the trademark three-two ländler rhythm that dominates this scherzo. The theme rose and fell like giants or very large gods at play. The trio had a lovely, Viennese grace to it that is heard in the later Bruckner symphonies, as if the peasant composer with a love of church music had finally gained a little urban sophistication.

The "Bruckner rhythm" expands to an enormous scale in the third movement, one of the composer's most majestic Adagios. Here, the Philharmonic's augmented brass section moved to the fore, seeming to open a sonic gateway into the cosmic mysteries that so obsessed this composer. Unusually, the climax of the Adagio at its exact midpoint, with a simple, unforgettable canon in the horns that is stated once. That horn figure seems to be the long-sought truth at the heart of this questing movement. It is then varied and interwoven into the huge structure, but never repeated.

The potent opening of the finale with pounding timpani and driving strings served as the central building block for a mighty summation of everything that had come before. As the opening statement returned (this time played with firmness and conviction) the Philharmonic rose to a triumphant height. Once more, the Austrian peasant with a simple, unlikely talent for writing big music, had conquered.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats