Had he managed to fit in some music by Debussy and Stravinsky on his matinee concert at Disney Hall last Friday (maybe Jeux and the Octet respectively), Zubin Mehta would have neatly illustrated how the music of the 20th century often was a grand commentary, pro et contra, on the music of Wagner (and implicitly late Beethoven). Schoenberg and Webern, both lifelong and proud card-carrying Wagnerites, were represented at least; each of them in related, but highly distinct ways, searching out the implications of Wagner’s staggering blow upon traditional tonality in his epochal Tristan und Isolde.

Christine Goerke
© Arielle Doneson

Perhaps the one thing that all these composers – not only Debussy and Stravinsky, but indeed also Schoenberg and Webern – could agree upon was that Wagnerian volubility (which Mahler and Richard Strauss had adopted and expanded into the realm of symphonic music) was at a dead end. Yet the latter two sought to repurpose Wagner’s expressive power in strikingly new ways.

Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony no. 1, which opened the program’s second half, is typical of the conflict in much of early 20th-century art: extolling its predecessors, proud of its aesthetic lineage, yet coming to bury them all the same. Mehta recorded the work long ago with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in an interpretation every bit as lean, tight, and emotionally propulsive as the work itself. Half a century later, his reading was no less direct, though he yielded agreeably in the work’s slower sections, allowing enough room for Schoenberg’s febrile melodies to bloom.

An even more dramatic example of Wagner’s multifaceted influence was reflected in the work of Anton Webern. His early Six Pieces for Orchestra employs an orchestra massive enough to lift the wings of any Valkyrie. Instead, the composer uses his forces with startling delicacy and subtlety, as if the world of the Ring Cycle could be painted on the head of a pin. The conductor followed this with a work he referred to in his prefatory remarks to the audience as the “purest” Webern: the Concerto for nine instruments from 1934, dedicated to his friend and mentor Schoenberg on the occasion of his 60th birthday. With great care, Mehta delineated these deceptively tensile musical strands, the Philharmonic conveying this score’s vibrant tone colors effortlessly in the former work, while its soloists walked the knife-edge between emotional power and textural precision in the latter.

All this was reaction to the action that had preceded it, namely the three bleeding chunks from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung on the program’s first half. Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and the Funeral March, finely paced and topped with the noble playing of the Philharmonic’s brass section, were followed by the opera’s Immolation Scene, with Christine Goerke joining the orchestra in the last excerpt. The American-born soprano has been steadily earning acclaim in recent years, especially for her singing of Brünnhilde on both sides of the Atlantic. Her performance lived up to expectations. She has at her command a powerful and flexible voice, rich-toned and evenly produced, tailor-made for Wagner, and with its sonorous potency especially fitting for the apocalyptic visions of Götterdämmerung’s final moments. Together with the orchestra and Zubin Mehta, they wrought a collaboration that was both epic and nuanced, lending an almost chamber music-like quality which at moments could sound like the 20th century in an embryonic state. Mehta, who himself had witnessed much of that century, knows better than most that the “music of tomorrow” did indeed become the music of our today... and in ways that Wagner could scarcely have ever imagined.