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A Thousand Dying Suns

Los Angeles
Walt Disney Concert Hall
03/03/2009 -  
Hugo Wolf: Italian Serenade
Joseph Marx: Four Songs
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 9

Angela Maria Blasi (soprano)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta (conductor)

Zubin Mehta (© Alex Gallardo/Los Angeles Times)

After an impassioned standing ovation at the end of the performance, the conductor silenced the hall to announce: “Since 1962 I have been dreaming to play for you with this orchestra.” For those of us in the audience, it was worth the wait. Zubin Mehta is a familiar figure in Los Angeles. He was music director of the LA Philharmonic for 16 years and he often returns as a guest conductor or with the Israel Philharmonic. But this performance, the Vienna Philharmonic’s first in Disney Hall, was a revelation.

The Mehta/Vienna Bruckner 9 was the event that everyone was anticipating. The soft opening passage was absolute velvet followed by a crescendo that was a tower of steel reaching into the stratosphere. At piano, the orchestra was lush, rich and full; at forte it was equally firm and solid, not at all blaring or simply loud, but utterly uncompromised, adamant. We often hear about a “globalized” sound amongst the world’s foremost orchestras who trade globetrotting conductors and tour internationally on a regular basis. Over the decades, travel and recordings have allegedly had a dampening, homogenizing effect on orchestral voices. Without a doubt, there has been some effect from these forces, an evolution and perhaps at times a diminishing vector in regard to unique national musical styles. But the Vienna Philharmonic truly seems to be its own unique thing. Their efforts in this direction also have had an effect on their performance.

They govern themselves and abstain from engaging a permanent conductor. Each player uses the instrument that was played by his predecessor in the orchestra. And they seem to have successfully carried forward a revered, highly developed tradition of orchestral technique. This achievement was apparent in the unqualified coherence of their attacks. But it was even more striking in the way that they could close a musical phrase, in the endings of their lines. There seemed to be one invisible hand that touched each instrument to blend all of their sounds together into one, and then make them all vanish in one solitary movement. The roundness and fullness of the sound was there; then it just evaporated. Zubin Mehta did not micro-conduct these closures – they occurred naturally.

With decades and centuries of that music behind him, Mehta took his place on the podium easily and lightly. There was clearly a deep comprehension of the music (he conducted without a score) but he did not personally envision its architecture. He did not impose an authorial interpretation. It was the Vienna Philharmonic’s tradition; it was the “organism’s” revelation of Bruckner 9. The conductor gave very few individual cues – every part of the organism knew precisely what it was doing, where it was going. In the pizzicati of the Scherzo, Mehta moved his baton in tiny quirky ticks. But it was not that the ticks cued the strings- they were precisely synchronized with them. The timpanist kept tuning his drums, listening to them with his ear close to the membrane and then turning the levers or turnbuckles.

It was as if the orchestra, conductor and the symphonic music itself were in fact one single organism governed by one overarching strand of DNA. It was not that they were a magnificently perfect chariot team, driven by the great charioteer Zubin Mehta. Rather, they were all part of one being. In their performance all the musicians and the music itself together became a single life form. The ease with which they worked together, conductor and instrumentalists sharing the sweat of their brows, was astounding. Not to take anything away from him, but rather as a tribute, Mehta seemed to be simply one of the musicians: the most central of them, the one who coordinates them all. The musical tradition of the Vienna Philharmonic shone out like a beacon, a torch. Each of the musicians carried it, lived it and understood it, as did Zubin Mehta. Each individual managed to inherit and embody that tradition, including the conductor. The result, in Bruckner 9, was like witnessing a thousand dying suns from the bridge of a starship.

First two pieces were fluffy Viennese bonbons. They were a warm up. The songs by Joseph Marx were a lighter cousin of Strauss’ Four Last Songs, but leaning toward the romanticism of the 19th century and without any hint of the devastation of the 20th century. The songs were beautiful but not particularly significant, although Ms. Blasi was nominated for a Grammy award for her Joseph Marx recording. The Wolf Serenade didn’t match the charm of a Tchaikovsky or Dvorák serenade, but still offered some delight. The massive strength of the ensemble was kept hidden, until revealed by the dying suns of Bruckner.

Thomas Aujero Small



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