It was an auspicious debut; a collaboration that, in time, would propel both orchestra and conductor to the very summit of the classical music world. On the stage of the old Philharmonic Hall in Downtown stepped a 24-year-old conductor at the very beginning of his world career. The orchestra before him had begun to make headway into global prominence during the short-lived tenure of its previous music director, Eduard van Beinum. The applause at the close of the concert melts away and sweeping past audience and musicians are an intervening 50 years, not to mention two more concert venues, and a handful of music directors.

Zubin Mehta © Oded Antman
Zubin Mehta
© Oded Antman

Now half a century later, conductor and orchestra meet again to celebrate the anniversary of that concert – and the city that had once been his home was there to express its gratitude.

It was a touching homecoming for Zubin Mehta, with Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky declaring the day “Zubin Mehta Day” in the county, and City Councilmember Tom LaBonge on hand to designate Mehta as a “Living Cultural Treasure” of the city. One of only five ever named, he added. In Walt Disney Concert Hall, sitting in the crowds that packed the building to hear Mehta, were a few who had seen the conductor’s first concert with the orchestra.

But for all the accolades, Mehta kept a cool exterior. He expressed gratitude, but never gushed. At the man’s core is humility coupled with a no-nonsense attitude – traits that informed the program he conducted. It was the same program that had opened his debut concert 50 years ago; a serious-minded selection of music. Still, surprises were found. Mozart’s overture to Don Giovanni was given a slight tweak by way of Ferrucio Busoni. The Italian-German composer incorporated into the overture a snippet of the Commendatore’s arrival in the final act, followed by a spirited, albeit somewhat clunky stretto.

At the center stood Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony; a work with, at times, a severe cast that suited Mehta’s abilities brilliantly. The opening “Angelic Concert” was played with a serene clarity that set alight its polyphonic web of voices. Mehta in the closing “Temptation of St Anthony” kept the linear clarity and sharpness of attack while firmly underlining the menacing power that drives the movement.

If Dvořák’s dour Symphony no. 7 seems like a stolid piece of music to end the concert with, it wasn’t so back when Mehta first conducted it. It was only in that era that the likes of George Szell and Rafael Kubelík were beginning to bring to audiences the full depth of Dvořák’s musical output. His Seventh is sometimes compared with Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, but despite its minor key has very little in common with the manic intensity and the black tragedy of the Russian’s work. If the first movement at times seems uneventful, the next three movements are full of delight; especially the bubbly Scherzo. Mehta presented the score “as is” without imposing himself before the composer. It was a clean, straight reading, though a little more urgency in the first movement would have been welcome.

Closing the concert was a brief tribute to the late Ravi Shankar, whom Mehta referred to as his “great friend, guru, and mentor”. A beautifully shaped, yet clear-eyed “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations brought the celebration to a poignant close.