Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Mehta goes meta with Bruckner

Mehta in action at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Historical and political ghosts almost seemed to haunt the recent Celebrity Series appearance of the Israel Philharmonic, which last week took the stage at Symphony Hall under the baton of longtime conductor Zubin Mehta. In fact the concert seemed thick with subtext from its first moments, as it opened with a pairing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Hatkivah" ("The Hope"), the poignant national anthem of Israel, drawn from yearning Zionist sentiments penned by the poet Naphtali Herz Imber (who emigrated to Palestine in the 1870's and lived in one of the first Jewish colonies there).

I personally love the Israeli national anthem (it's among the most poetic around), but its placement here read as a slightly forced political statement. (Why not simply play it alone?)  Meanwhile the rest of the program - which was devoted to Bruckner's titanic Eighth Symphony - seemed to lie on yet another political fault line. For Anton Bruckner was perhaps Hitler's favorite composer - yes, even closer to his heart than Wagner, to whom many of Bruckner's works owe much (the Eighth included); indeed, when word spread in Berlin of Hitler's demise, the radio stations immediately began playing Bruckner.

So it was hard not to read this unusual triangulation as some sort of oblique statement from Mehta - who may be the only non-Jew in the Israel Philharmonic. He's Indian, of course (born in Mumbai, and I believe still an Indian citizen), although actually descended from the Iranian Parsis, who were (wait for it) Zoroastrians. This heritage may account for the cosmopolitan practicality of his outlook; Mehta personally opposes the settlements that have done Israel's reputation so much international damage, and has repeatedly pushed for classical music education for Palestinians. But at the same time he evinces a certain shrugging resignation to the political realities of his situation. (The conductor recently spoke openly of the day he hoped he would be able to hire an Arab into the Israel Philharmonic - without any apparent irony.)

Mehta has also campaigned for the playing of Wagner in the Jewish state; but again, he appreciates this composer inevitably recalls the ultimate horror to many living in Israel, so he wisely doesn't push too hard. As Bruckner stands at one remove from the actual death camps, however, it seems he can be programmed - so it was surprising that, given the risks involved, Mehta's handling of this particular score wasn't more incisive.  Or was it that the Philharmonic itself was somewhat restive, or resistant? I'm not sure - but the concert was persistently unsatisfying; I myself am not as taken with the Eighth as some (I partly agree with the wag who described it as "Batman with brains"), but I have heard compelling accounts of it.
This was not one of them. Mehta took things at a ruminative pace, which is hardly wrong (and in the end his version ran only slightly longer than most). The trouble was that his rendering lacked the subtle shifts in pace that can sharpen the drama of Bruckner's rather bloated cosmic conflicts. Indeed, I sometimes wondered whether Mehta was consciously going meta, and keeping the score at one remove - was he attempting to drain Bruckner of the Wagnerian echo of his spiritual call-to-arms, while lingering over the intricacy of his admittedly brilliant orchestrations? Perhaps.

This would explain why many moments in the symphony - particularly in its Adagio - felt as if they had been sculpted with care, at least in rehearsal; but alas, in performance, the horns were recalcitrantly rough until the finale, and the strings, though gleamingly cohesive, sometimes edged toward stridency. And the concert was dotted with slightly ragged exits and entrances from just about everybody. All this, plus the meditative pace, led to an accumulating sense of tedium; we seemed to almost plod from anxious valley to triumphant peak in Bruckner's spiritual Tyrol. Perhaps this was partly due to the fact that, as the program quite accurately noted, there's a liturgical kind of certainty to Bruckner's musical development - indeed, while some composer's Masses sound like symphonies, Bruckner's symphonies usually sound like Masses. Certainly this performance reminded me of many a long Sunday morning spent kneeling in the pews.

Still, there were ravishing moments in the Adagio, and though the Finale lacked propulsive energy, it came to a compelling climax. So at least things were looking up on that last Alp. And who knows? Maybe the players just had jet lag. But I'd argue if Mehta is trying to make Bruckner a staple of Israeli programming, he has a bit more polishing to do.

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