Music review: Zubin Mehta leads the Israel Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall

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The Israel Philharmonic cannot escape politics. Before the orchestra’s appearance in Walt Disney Concert Hall Tuesday night, protesters opposed to the Palestinian policies of the Israeli government chanted anti-apartheid slogans and carried placards contending that music is not truth and does not produce peace.

That the Israel Philharmonic brings out supporters of the Israeli state was perfectly obvious inside the hall, where an atmosphere of patriotism was palpable among a well-turned out crowd rarely seen at other Disney Hall concerts. Zubin Mehta -- who is music director for life of the Israel Philharmonic and first conducted the orchestra 50 years ago -- is a cultural hero in Israel and was given a rapturously warm welcome Tuesday.


But in boycotting the concert, the protesters missed a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony that presented a kind of truth and represented a kind of peace that regularly escapes even well-intentioned political leaders. Mehta has long been a Mahler man, and the Israelis have their own long-standing fondness for the composer. I’ve had issues with both conductor and the orchestra in the past. But this was a great performance, and I don’t think the political context should be ignored.

The circumstances here are very different from the objections to the Vienna Philharmonic, which did not attract demonstrators in Berkeley over its continued reluctance to diversify its ranks when it performed Mahler’s Sixth Symphony on Sunday (and which will repeat that concert in Costa Mesa on Thursday night at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall). The Israel Philharmonic might not be racially diverse either. Its players tend to be Russian, Eastern European and Israeli Jews. But there is probably no major orchestra in the world more contentiously diverse in its politics and attitudes.

Orchestra members who champion Palestinian settlements share music stands with those who adamantly oppose them. Differences -- musical, cultural and temperamental -- are equally notable. A big part of Mehta’s job is as peace-keeper. That he, a Farsi from India, is the perfect music director for this orchestra comes both from his sympathetic outsider status and his own temperament as an insistent conductor. Mehta has never hesitated bending musicians to his will but he also has a dazzlingly technical capacity to let individual players enjoy a certain amount of freedom within reason. Strong-willed soloists love him for his capacity to follow as well as lead.

Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 (the “Miracle”) opened the program. It was too loud at first, as aggressive musicians came to terms with Disney’s sensitive acoustic. But they eventually toned it down. Mehta led a tight, careful and slightly airless account of the first two movements.

Then something marvelous (a “miracle”?) happened. In the trio section of the Scherzo a solo oboe produced playful, alluring filigree, sounding almost like Haydn from a Middle Eastern souk. Mehta smiled (he doesn’t smile on the podium very often), allowing an unconventional personal point of view to enhance rather than disrupt the norm. It was a breathtaking moment that presaged the big Mahler symphony after intermission.

The Israel Philharmonic is an orchestra of individuals. The players tend to be on the older side. Few can be caught actually looking at the conductor. Everyone, it seems, has something to say. And a Mahler symphony, full of solo moments, full of sudden changes of expression and emotion, is the place to say it. Mahler performances in Israel sometimes show the kind of commitment that you will find no place else, but they can also be a sloppy mess that would mortify major professional orchestras elsewhere.

The Fifth begins with a trumpet call, and Tuesday it was radically, and excitingly, klezmer-like. Mehta then grabbed the orchestra like a cowboy wrestling a herd and led a dramatic, pointed and brilliantly focused performance of the funereal first two movements, allowing just enough leeway to let the players take wonderful little unexpected turns.

The Scherzo was macabre as it should be, but not exaggerated. The Adagio was not perhaps the love song Mahler intended, but it was gritty and fervent.

The Finale was the high point. After a troubled first half, Mahler turns happy, and conductors have long struggled with what that’s supposed to mean. Mehta here allowed in many individual voices in the solos. It was, well, Haydnesque, in a playful way I’ve never heard before, and thrilling. And how fine everyone sounded, with special praise for the creamy horn solos.

This was Mahler showing that the world is not one way or another, but many ways at once. And this was a distinguished Mehta -- about to turn 75 next month and immortalized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in a ceremony before Tuesday’s concert -- demonstrating that he has aged far better than many of us who once dismissed him as brash and slapdash could ever have imagined. Now that Mehta has bestowed on Israel an orchestra as a workable collective, would the protesters really prefer the government spend its shekels on settlements?


Zubin Mehta receives star on Hollywood Walk of Fame

Mr. Mehta’s world tour

Music review: The Vienna Philharmonic in Berkeley

-- Mark Swed

Photos, from top: Protesters at Walt Disney Concert Hall before the Israel Philharmonic performance Tuesday night; Zubin Mehta conducts the orchestra in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho.