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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Concert Review: Who You Gonna Call? Dust-Busters!

The Israel Philharmonic ends its Carnegie Hall run.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic in flight. Photo © 2014 Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
There is a long history between conductor Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Mr. Mehta has enjoyed thirty years at the helm of this Tel Aviv-based ensemble, which continues to serve as a much-loved international musical ambassador for their home country. On Thursday night, Mr. Mehta and his players offered their third and final program at Carnegie Hall this week: an evening of overture, concerto and symphony played in the traditional order. It was not exactly a thrilling experience.

The overture was from Weber's Oberon. Although it contains some of the finest music that this German Romantic composer ever wrote, Oberon remains an operatic footnote. It has difficult vocal parts and an even more difficult libretto: the kind of fractured fairy tale that would make J.R.R. Tolkien wince. However its overture, dominated by solo horn and an eloquent melody for clarinet remains a fizzing concoction. It was delivered with verve and punch.

Next, the orchestra was joined by Gil Shaham, as soloist in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Mr. Shaham has recently been plagued by appearances where the tone of his violin has sounded thin and reedy, without the customary bloom of sound that one associates with such a high-end instrument. This problem plagued him throughout the long first movement of this concerto, but his combination of dazzling fingerwork and lightning-speed bowing made for an engrossing performance.

The tonal problem persisted in the slow movement, a mournful Russian song which is one of Tchaikovsky's most eloquent expressions. Things grew more troubled in the careening high-speed finale, a set of increasingly elaborate variations on Russian folksong. Although the performance was perfectly competent and professionally delivered that was all it was. He seemed much more interested in his encore: the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach's third and final Partita for solo violin. Happily, his violin sounded more interested too, responding at last with the kind of tone that one expects from an artist of this caliber playing a Stradivarius.

Oberon was a late Weber work that has never really found an audience, and the Tchaikovsky violin concerto has a tortured path to eventual triumph. But both of those stories pale when placed next to the tale of Schubert's Symphony No. 9. Unheard in Schubert's brief lifetime, the Ninth was discovered by composer Robert Schumann in a dusty archive of the composer's papers, a pile that was maintained by Schubert's brother Edward. It now stands as a pinnacle of the symphonic repertory and is one of Schubert's greatest achievements.

Mr. Mehta took a relaxed approach to this work, dragging Schubert's tempos, laying out the formal thematic ideas in the first movement with the solemnity of a butler polishing the household silver. If that's your thing, great, but more pop was needed. The trotting Andante was slowed to a casual walk, with the oboe near at hand. In fact, Mr. Mehta used an unusual orchestral seating arrangement, placing the woodwinds in a ring around him at the foot of the conductor's dais. This may have led to greater clarity in the performance but it also isolated the conductor from his concertmaster.

The dance movement followed, again having more of an 18th century stilted quality than the burning energy of romanticism that shines through the pages of this score. Mr. Mehta and his forces found their voices in the finale, where strong performances from the winds and brass drove home the expansive innovative orchestral ideas that make this piece the subject of endless fascination and in-depth study. A ripping encore followed: Dvořák's G-minor Slavonic Dance that showed, yes these musicians were capable of having fun onstage after all.

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