Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A Disappointing Visit from Israel

Last night the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Music Director Zubin Mehta, visited Davies Symphony for the latest installment in the Great Performers Series hosted by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). This ensemble has been hosted by SFS frequently since 1984, always with Mehta on the podium; and their last visit took place in 2011. In spite of that impressive track record, last night was seriously disappointing, leaving the kind of disturbing memories that haunt the mind just like all of those dark spirits that frolic every Halloween.

The program was straightforward enough. The intermission was preceded by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 425 (“Linz”) symphony in C major and followed by Franz Schubert’s “Great” D. 944 symphony, also in C major. The overture was a suite that Amit Poznansky composed from the music he provided for the soundtrack of the film Footnote. This was a brief piece; so, for all intents and purposes, the evening was “owned” by Mozart and Schubert.

Sadly, neither composer came out of the experience very well. Indeed, by the second half of the evening, I found myself toying with the idea of using “Tedious Mush” as my headline. Fortunately, my better angels discouraged me; but, in the more sober context of this article, it is a phrase worth unpacking. The fact is that the overall sonority for both symphonies had a consistently murky (or mushy, if you prefer) quality; and the problem seems to have originated with how Mehta decided to deploy his string section.

Those who know Mehta’s background know that he shares with his colleague Daniel Barenboim a great admiration for the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. When Mehta was profiled by The New Yorker, the article went to some length to explain how Furtwängler’s approach differed from that of Arturo Toscanini; and one could probably also hold up Herbert von Karajan as a similarly contrasting example. Last night, however, Mehta seemed to be guided by Karajan’s precept that there is no such thing as too many strings.

To be fair, Mehta did reduce (by about 25%) the size of his string section for K. 425. Nevertheless, the result was a disturbingly unbalanced mush of sonorities. As this site has observed in the past, the best Mozart symphony performances are the ones that take stock of how the winds and brass are represented and then scales the number of strings to balance those “forces of breath.” Last night much of the writing for the winds was close to inaudible except for the “chorale moments,” when the strings drop out entirely.

This leads to the other major problem with last night’s performance. In the midst of this lack of balance of sonorities, Mehta never managed to put together an overall logic that guided each of Mozart’s movements from beginning to end. (Whether or not the entire symphony has such a logic can be left to others to debate.) Thus, it did not take long for tedium to set in, leading to here-we-go-again reactions to any manifestation of recapitulation. In other words this was very much a “tedious mush” account of Mozart in the literal sense of those two words.

Schubert did not fare much better. As he had done in 2011, Mehta placed the octet of wind players (pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and horns) in front of his maximum-strength string section. This provided an unconventional approach to improving the balance. Unfortunately, it also meant an unobscured view of the first oboist, who seemed more interested in channeling his friends in Spinal Tap than in just sitting there and playing the music. However, if the winds were more audible, the strings still had that mushy quality that sapped the life out of every phrase that Schubert composed for his D. 994 symphony. As a result, the piece just slogged its way through the score; and I suspect I was not the only one to check my watch at the end of the third movement.

I had considered going on a rant about this event being an affront to serious listeners. However, I realized that it was probably the case that most of the audience was there for socio-political reasons, rather than musical ones. There is considerable support for this ensemble by the local community; but it is support in the same vein as the pro-Israel lobbying efforts in Washington. Those who are most supportive of the Israel Philharmonic probably show up just to “see the flag;” and what make this most ironic is that the flag itself is literal, rather than metaphorical. It was right there at the front audience-right corner with the American flag on the opposite front corner. This is the only visiting ensemble that begins a program by playing its own national anthem after having played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” These concerts are all about allegiance, rather than the music being performed.

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