Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic were magnificent at the palace gates, the sound system appalling
On a beautiful evening Tuesday, I was among the lucky few who had invitation-only tickets for the festive concert at Sanam Luang given by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to mark Her Majesty the Queen’s 80th birthday. Conductor Zubin Mehta’s return was really the talk of the town – no one seemed interested in what he was going to do during the open-air concert or even what pieces were on the programme.
Sanam Luang was turned into a luxury complex. I walked into the fenced-off area full of well-dressed people before climbing the stairs to my seat. I somehow felt like I was attending a pop concert with the colourful lighting and jazzy background music. HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirinthorn graciously presided.
The orchestra under the dictates of Maestro Mehta began with the Royal Anthem at a quick march, and I was immediately struck by the sub-standard quality of the sound system. It wasn’t fit for even a decent luk thung band. This was not an appreciate way to deal with a world-class orchestra.
Classical music in general is an acoustic “unplugged” show. A classical concert produces a most natural sound without electronic amplification. A great conductor once said a good concert hall is actually the most important instrument. When a classical concert takes place outdoors, the sound engineer and his equipment act as the most important instrument, on which the conductor and a hundred musicians onstage depend for their survival.
The concert proper began with Beethoven’s “Leonore Overture No 3”. The orchestra sound that came through the loudspeakers was somewhat artificial. It turned the sound of the strings into a glassy and harsh noise. The same thing happened with the woodwinds. The offstage trumpet solo had a problem with the delay of the sound that came through the speakers. I didn’t think the musicians were comfortable with the situation. It created altogether a tense beginning.
When it came to Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertante K 364”, the problem got even worse. This masterpiece is universally regarded as one of the most sublime pieces ever composed in the West. It was written as a concerto for a small group of strings and woodwinds with two soloists – violin and viola. The soloists in this case, Ilya Konovalov and Roman Spitzer, deserved full praise, doing their very best in an outdoor setting.
The two gentlemen performed precisely in tune with wonderful tone. The ensemble was very good throughout, but the microphones were inefficient in bringing out the sound of the soloists, letting them be subsumed by the orchestra. The viola was better projected simply because Spritzer is much taller than Konovalov, so he could get closer to the microphone.
Before the intermission, Mehta led the orchestra in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol, Opus 34”. The orchestra seemed more comfortable and had fun with these lively Spanish dances. The solo woodwinds were flawless, and the percussion section had a grand time exhibiting its virtuosity. The contrast between each movement was fanciful. The famous solo violin was almost inaudible. What a pitiful sound system!
The second half of the concert consisted of Brahms’ “Symphony No 1 Opus 68”. After Beethoven created his monumental Ninth Symphony, every composer who followed struggled to match it. Schubert retreated to a more classical style, while Brahms hesitated to embark on his first symphony until he reached his 40s. The symphony shows the maturity of the composer, romantic sentiment and classical structure well balanced in a great masterwork. It is a challenge to any conductor and orchestra to bring out its essence.
Mehta conducted with full energy, his mastery of the baton clearly demonstrated. His body language was very pleasant to watch. The orchestra reacted with equal dynamism, the timpani and brass section becoming the heroes of the piece, thanks to the amplification.
By the end of the evening my ear was attuned to the sound system and I was beginning to enjoy the concert, just as it came to a close. But there were still the encores. The maestro and orchestra performed two Viennese favourites – the “Thunder and Lightning Polka” and “The Radetzsky March”. Mehya urged the audience to clap along in the latter piece as if they were at the Musikvereinsaal in Vienna on New Year’s Day.
The concert ended with a big bang, to the satisfaction of all concerned.
To attend a concert with a world-famous orchestra and conductor, outdoors with a nice, cool breeze, by privileged invitation only, somehow made me eventually forget the inadequate sound system. Without doubt, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under Zubin Mehta will remain the talk of the town for some time.
With the stunning view of the Grand Palace behind the orchestra, I descended the stairs and walked out to the street smiling. I noticed lots of extra lighting equipment along the white wall of the palace that had been installed specially for the occasion.
Light and sound – just that? Surely a musical experience normally demands more and offers more.