A symphonic triumph for our times

Art October 23, 2014 01:00

By Thanong Khanthong
The Nation

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Zubin Mehta guides the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra through the marvels of Vivaldi, Mozart and Mahler

Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance at the Thailand Cultural Centre on Monday was quite memorable. It had all the drama and anecdotal qualifications.

For Zubin Mehta, the celebrated conductor, got a very warm reception from the Bangkok audience, just like when he and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performed in the open air at Sanam Luang about two years ago, with the glittering Emerald Buddha Temple in the backdrop.

Then the highlight was Mozart’s “Concerto for Violin and Viola”, which, in a way, paid tribute to Bangkok and Thonburi as the “twin capital” of Siam.

This time Vivaldi’s “Concerto in B Minor for Four Violins and Orchestra” offered an illuminating opening for a musical evening that had some political overtones.

First, security was particularly tight at the venue. Second, two security guards sat prominently at either wing of the stage to keep an eye out for any possible troublemakers in the audience. The Israeli Embassy went into minute details to make sure the concert proceeded as a joyful event.

Fortunately, no member of ISIS showed up. As it turned out, it was a wonderful musical event delivered by one of the world’s greatest living conductors and one of its best orchestras.

In spite of his age, Mehta was in top form in guiding the whole programme through a lengthy evening, first with the Vivaldi’s concerto, followed by Mozart’s “Symphony No 36 in C Major” and Mahler’s “Symphony No 5”.

Mehta might be past his prime, with slower, less agile movement, yet he still commanded full authority over the interpretations and stylish delicacy of the musical nuances.

The Vivaldi concerto is a favourite fast piece for a string ensemble, providing the four soloists an intelligent conversation that goes along in harmony.

It was an all-women group of soloists, drawn from the Israeli Philharmonic. They performed elegantly, with solid technique, handling the tricky quick passages with ease, and they got along with each other very well in the overall structure. When they played softly, we could almost hear a needle drop. Afterwards they received a huge cheer, not only from the audience but also from their friends backstage. It was a moment of triumph.

Mozart’s “Symphony 36” was a contrast to the previous baroque piece of delicacy and virtuosity. It had some traits of the elements known from Mozart’s great operas. The style is Viennese, showing Mozart at the pinnacle of his creative powers.

Mehta led to the orchestra through some signs of urgency and at times dark tones. Although the piece is written in C major, we could feel its alternate swings of mood. Mozart admitted to his father that he was turning out this symphonic piece speedily so that he could have something of a showpiece at Linz, where he and his newly married wife would like to create a stir.

But the highlight of the evening was left to Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. There were some 100 members of the orchestra onstage. It was almost unprecedented that Bangkok concert-goers had such a chance to listen to a full-fledged philharmonic orchestra of the type needed to do justice to Mahler’s symphonies.

Mahler was the culmination in the development of the symphonic repertoire, following on from Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. Mahler carried it to new heights.

This was indeed a great performance, an homage to Mahler’s instrumental symphony, divided into three parts with a finale. It was like an epic journey, with a dominant brass from the opening, a scherzo of dance music to provide a contrast in Part II, before the famous adagietto tiptoed in before coming to a conclusion with a complex counterpoint for a jubilant chorale ending.

Overall, there was a heavy air in the concert evening. It provided the audience with a mixture of delight and a prophecy of our age.