tell it as it is
A delightful evening with Maestro conductor Zubin Mehta
He made many heads turn in 1981 when, as the conductor-for-life of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) - Zubin Mehta announced that he would play an excerpt of Richard Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" as an encore piece at the end of a subscription concert. The music of Wagner, a German composer, had been banned in Israel since in 1948. Despite passing away half a century before Adolf Hitler and the Nazis took control of Germany, Wagner has been perceived, even today, as greatly influencing that regime. It was well known that he was Hitler's favourite composer.
Before playing Wagner, Maestro Zubin Mehta - a much heralded and appreciated conductor in Israel, as he had braved bullets and bombing to perform in the country over the years - made a short speech to the audience. He spoke of Israel as a democracy in which all music should be played. He added that if anyone was offended by the performance, they could leave the auditorium. Some of his orchestra members did, as did some older members of the audience. The performance was halted only when a Holocaust survivor jumped onto the stage and opened his shirt and showed a scar on his stomach inflicted in a Nazi concentration camp.
Years later, Mehta would admit that 1981 was too soon to play Wagner in Israel. But there was no question that Mehta's decision to play the taboo music of Wagner for the first time in a concert hall in Israel marked a major turning point and paved the way for conductors after him to follow suit, for more accepting Israeli audiences.
Outdoor symphony performances are not new in the West, but in Thailand? Paris is known as the "city of light", but Bangkok really should be called "the city of noise". And to play at the Pramane Ground or Sanam Luang with cacophanous traffic on all sides? Many people invited to the performance of the IPO under the baton of Zubin Mehta did not know what to make of the idea or what to expect. It had never been done before, and it could be said that the performers were up against all odds, acoustically and otherwise.
But Mehta, who has played outdoor concerts elsewhere, did not disappoint. His choice of compositions - that by now he and his musicians have played a thousand times - was able to make the audience forget about the surrounding traffic noise and the hum of giant air-conditioner compressors that kept the temperature pleasantly cool in the small enclave where the music was performed.
This was not the first performance by Mehta and the IPO in Thailand. He and his musicians came to play in Bangkok for the first time in 2008, at the Thailand Cultural Centre. At that time he had to change the programme of music due to certain constraints of the hall, which was built as a gift from Japan to Thailand. It was meant primarily as a venue for events for schoolchildren. The physical configuration of the hall and the seats were not meant for adult music, and did not lend themselves well to the intricate and delicate sounds of a classical music orchestra.
However, as the Buddhist adage goes, if there is no sin, there is no dharma, and Mehta proved how exhilarating it can be to reach the top of a mountain after a treacherous climb.
Beethoven's "Leonore Overture No3 Op 72a" set the stage for a wonderful performance. The following piece, Mozart's "Sinfonia" had some acoustic problems, but Roman Spitzer and Ilya Konovalov as the principal and first violinists were superb, and managed to save the piece. Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnol" at the end of the first half of the programme was rousingly perfect, and set the audience up for the second half.
And then came Brahms' "Symphony No1", which he took more than two decades to finish and was often called "Beethoven's Tenth". The symphony was finished in 1876, which was during the reign of King Rama V in Thailand.
Despite the applause that erupted between movements, Mehta and his orchestra did not let that spoil the show. It was perhaps the best of the IPO's performances in Thailand thus far, and true to the essence of Brahms. The allegro of the last movement, with its simple, beautiful theme, reminiscent of Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" in his ninth and last symphony, was powerful as it rose onward and upward, right to the end.
The beautifully lit Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha provided a majestic backdrop for this magnificent piece that was brilliantly performed, while the conductor, at 77, demonstrated that age is just a number. He excelled not only despite of, but because of all the hurdles.
Credit must be given to the Festival Committee for its very able hand in organising this first major classical music concert outdoors in Bangkok. Nobody could have expected that it would proceed as smoothly as it did.
As the final encore piece, Mehta chose "Johann Strauss sr.’s Radetsky March", during which he turned around and "conducted" the audience to clap to the tune when appropriate. At that point, there was no distance between the orchestra and the audience. Music once again proved its communicative power.
The audience was overjoyed to see Her Royal Highness in public for the first time since her release from hospital. Mehta passed his baton to her as he asked for her autograph on the playbill. It was a simple act of mutual appreciation and respect. And over the hazy Bangkok sky, Jupiter managed to shine brightly through.