One could say we are slightly spoiled. Despite the news of Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel’s inevitable departure (we still have him through 2026), the LA Phil is the envy of other bands throughout the country. Having Zubin Mehta as your Conductor Emeritus to make regular appearances is just one of the many reasons why. It was touching to see the maestro, nearly 87 years of age now, amble to the podium. Hardly the young upstart as when he was previously music director during the formative years of both parties, he remains no less compelling a figure. 

Zubin Mehta
© Photo provided courtesy of the LA Phil

Conducting Mahler’s Third Symphony, the longest piece in the standard repertoire, would be demanding for any conductor, of any age. Yet I can’t imagine anyone giving a more convincing reading than Mehta’s on Thursday night. Conducting entirely from memory, he was economical with his gestures (understandable given the stamina necessary). Perhaps he was taking a page from the Richard Strauss conducting rules of leaving the perspiring to the audience, not the conductor. At times his gestures were barely discernible from behind. The effect was a refreshingly straightforward reading. Clocking in at just about an hour and a half, the performance was unfussy, unmannered. Like the conductor’s Mahler Second from a few years ago, Mehta seemed more than happy to let the music speak for itself. Doing so led to remarkable results with this orchestra who are well-able to make the most of Mahler’s music through their virtuosic playing.

Throughout the evening, the huge orchestra (crammed as close as possible on the large Disney Hall stage) managed to play with a chamber-like clarity that defied belief. Strings in the second and third movements, in particular, weaved Mahler’s colorful textures with an assured yet lean sound. Indeed, even when at its most brash, Mahler’s behemoth of a symphony never sounded overbearing in Mehta’s hands.

The conductor balanced this with a steady hand, giving direction, not allowing the piece to bog down. The payoffs were thrilling. When it came time for the climax of the first movement, Mehta’s acceleration of the tempo felt perfectly organic. The opening chorale of the final movement was inspiring. Other highlights were exemplary solo contributions from the flügelhorn (Thomas Hooten, placed in the rafters to thrilling effect), trombone (David Rejano Cantero) and concertmaster Martin Chalifour – world class.

The women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus were vibrant contributors, singing with zest, excellent diction, and resplendent tone. Mezzo-soprano Gerhild Romberger sang Zarathustra’s song with nobility and richness. 

All forces combined made this an imperative performance. The skill and musicality of the forces alone would make for a compelling evening, but Mehta’s reading of this most uncynical, perhaps most earnest of Mahler’s pieces, was a refreshing reminder of the vitality of music amidst the everyday brooding. Optimism, joy, sincerity were all in abundance. If one were to quibble, it would only be that Mehta’s reading of the final pages of Mahler’s vision of heaven was only too brief.