Leading the Vienna Philharmonic in Los Angeles, the essence of the symphonic repertory continues to elude a famed conductor

On The Town | Alan Rich | May 2009

Zubin Mehta leads the Vienna Philharmonic at Disney Hall in Los Angeles (Photo: NY Times)

Now and then you couldn’t help but recognize the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic: in the grandiose oratory of the massed brass that brought the first movement of the Bruckner Ninth to its close; to the trio of the scherzo of the Schubert Ninth, when strings and winds conspired to force open vistas across the Vienna woods, with their ever-so-slightly gemütlich, off-the-beat accents that constitute the Viennese smile.

But the concerts here at Disney Hall in Los Angeles March 3 & 4 were no happy events over all; the programming was ridiculous, and Zubin Mehta was in charge.

Program #1 had, as its central attraction, a set of songs by Joseph Marx. Already in my student years in Vienna –  1953, say –  he was one of the last of Vienna’s surviving dinosaurs, those stirrers of the soup-pots in which bubbled the chromatic dregs of Wagnerism mingled with a thin Brahmsian treacle. Doktor Marx would perch in his box at the Musikverein, desperate to be noticed. Not many did.

In the Tuesday performance, a clutch of his songs were sung just passably by a certain Angela Maria Blasi. The next night, there was time put to even poorer use in a different fashion: The sweet but fatuous F-minor Piano Concerto of Chopin was employed as a wind-up toy for the garish talents of Lang Lang, an unconscionable squandering of arguably the world’s finest symphony orchestra, as backup for, beyond-argument, the world’s most tragically wasted potential keyboard virtuoso.

I have dealt with the phenomenon of Mehta often enough, and I have come no closer to understanding the circumstances that maintain his career. The essence of the basic symphonic repertory continues to elude him: the achievement of the orchestral balance that might clarify the imponderable scoring in a Bruckner symphony; the line of thought in that music that keeps the music moving forward even when dear old Anton finds it necessary to come to a sudden stop.

As for the Schubert Ninth, the major work on the second of the two concerts, I only wonder that some members of that splendid orchestra – whose personnel does, indeed, include a Schubert (Gerald) among its mellifluous violins – do not rise up in protest against a reading of their musical patrimony so stodgy in rhythm, so crude in its orchestral balance.

Ah me, I remember all too well the even sadder night back in 1964, when the younger and, wetter-behind-the-ears, Zubin brought his ruined Los Angeles Philharmonic to a misbegotten Carnegie Hall debut, for which neither it nor he was anywhere near ready – propelled by the same misguided civic pride that had pushed Mehta into the job – and wrought the same havoc on the same Schubert Ninth. You could look it up.

At least he was young and exotic then, with those flashing Parsi eyes; if he couldn’t woo the music, he could the influential ladies up front. Now he fixes the world with an angry glare, and oozes his way toward the podium as if he had just peed in his pants, bearing on his stooped shoulders the remnants of a glory that might have been, but from which he has been too often wrongly steered.


Alan Rich looks back upon sixty years as music critic on both coasts (The New York Times, New York Herald-Tribune, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, LA Weekly, etc.) His writings have been collected in a volume, So I’ve Heard, Notes of a Bicoastal Music Critic (Amadeus Press) and that also provides the title for his weekly online report

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