Few artists in the orchestra's history have so endeared themselves to its 110 players as Daniel Barenboim, an Israeli citizen who has appeared numerous times with them. So it wasn't at all surprising that Mehta, a longtime friend of Barenboim's, and the musicians staunchly supported Barenboim in his dispute with the Israeli parliament over his having performed music by Wagner last month in Jerusalem.
Speaking for the orchestra musicians and management, Mehta called a news conference in Tel Aviv in late July to denounce a decision by a Knesset committee to characterize Barenboim as a "cultural persona non grata" in Israel.
Barenboim wasn't present for Wednesday's concert, part of a tour marking the 65th anniversary of the orchestra's founding as well as the 50th anniversary of its American debut. And there was no Wagner on the program, since the Israel Philharmonic maintains an informal ban on music by Hitler's favorite composer. But there were two staples of the Viennese classical repertoire, Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 (K.216) and Schubert's Ninth Symphony, the "Great" C Major, to suggest where its musical heart lies.
Heavy rains prior to the event (a benefit for the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic) may have turned the lawns into swamps, but the pavilion was solidly filled with patrons who generously received these musical gifts. And well they might have, since the orchestra generally sounded in top form.
There were passing blemishesa horn bobble at the start of the Schubert, for examplethat would not qualify the Israel Philharmonic for admission into the world's orchestral elite. On the other hand, there was plenty of vigor behind Mehta's conducting and the players' willingness to give their respected chief everything he asked for was readily apparent. The Israelis clearly were out to take Ravinia by storm if the elements could not.
I heard plenty of gutsy, Central European-style string playing, albeit at a much higher level than we are used to hearing from orchestras from that part of the world. Thanks to its committed strings and alert woodwinds, the Israel Phil has managed to retain quite a bit of its old distinctive character, unlike so many of today's globalized orchestras. Mozart and Schubert were recognizable, of course, but just different enough from the American variety to fall freshly on the ear.
Pinchas Zukerman, another longtime pal of Mehta's, was the patrician soloist in the Mozart concerto. It was impossible not to respond to the open-hearted charm and warmth of their musical teamwork. The violinist spun long phrases of liquid gold, at times molding them with a romantic flexibility and ripeness of tone that would make Mozartean purists cringe. Too bad for them: Zukerman is too fine a fiddler to overdo a good thing and he never betrayed the music's best interests.
The damp, humid night air threatened collective intonation without seriously marring it. Mehta proved a reliably supportive partner, drawing a clean, well-balanced accompaniment from his relatively large string choir. Though beefed up in numbers, the Israeli strings were not about to steal the soloist's sonic presence.
In the Suite from Bartok's "Miraculous Mandarin," Mehta set loose his brass and percussion with a vengeance, witness the graphic trombone glissandos at the moment of the mandarin's entrance. The raucous cityscape he evoked at the beginning was viscerally effective and each episode of the lurid narrative vividly drawn. Others have brought out more of the ballet's queasy expressionistic atmosphere but Mehta propelled the angular rhythms with slam-bang excitement.
The Schubert drew a middle-of-the-road interpretation that succeeded well on its own terms. The somewhat bottom-heavy sound Mehta drew from his orchestra in the opening movement did not bode especially well for the rest of the symphony. But things improved greatly from there. Mehta paced each movement sensibly, allowed lyrical paragraphs to flow without fuss and kept a firm grip on the loose-limbed structure. I especially liked the rustic chatter of the woodwinds in the Scherzo and the affirmative swagger of their finale.