As part of its 100th anniversary celebration the Los Angeles Philharmonic brought back its Conductor Emeritus, Zubin Mehta, for a season opening celebration. On Thursday night, it was the world premiere of From Space I Saw Earth by Daníel Bjarnason, written specifically to put Mehta, Conductor Laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen, and current Music Director Gustavo Dudamel to work simultaneously in a single piece. Subsequent evenings were headlined by each conductor in their signature works. Mehta’s selection of Mahler's “Resurrection” Symphony was a natural choice given the piece’s prominence in the maestro’s career.

Zubin Mehta © Terry Linke
Zubin Mehta
© Terry Linke

Take your pick of cliches: who says you can’t go home again? The old guy’s still got it. What’s old is new, and so on. This was Mehta’s show, and for good reason. At 83 years of age, the revered conductor ambled onto the stage slowly, but assuredly, using a cane. After he plopped on a stool at the podium, a standing ovation still winding down, he dropped his cane with a thud. With a magician’s flare, he whipped a baton from his sleeve and fiercely prodded the opening tremolo out of the strings.

Obviously Mehta was unable to use his whole wingspan as he once did, but from the opening bars, his command of the piece, and of the players, was obvious. Conducting from memory, his trademark clarity of gesture was still astonishing; his mastery of the mechanics of the piece was impeccable. And the music? Vital.

Mehta’s straightforward view of the work still endures and still serves it well. He dispenses with many of the eccentrics that other conductors have read into the first movement, maintaining a brisk Allegro maestoso for the vast majority. This was most notable in transitions between material where many conductors would slow the ends of phrases to introduce the new material. He often refused, allowing the thematic material to dovetail seamlessly. Crucially, it never felt rushed; it was searing, biting, and dynamic. Yet Mehta brought out breathtaking pianissimos as well. The hushed unison of the eight double basses at Sehr langsam beginnend felt suspended in time.

The LA Phil players gave Mehta what he exhorted from them. It was not the cleanest the band has sounded, but it was thrilling. The edginess of the brass (horns in particular) and strings called to mind the Vienna Philharmonic’s trademark sound. The second movement Ländler was sweet in its simplicity. Glissandos were minimal, agogic affectation was practically non-existent. The strings’ playing was controlled and beautifully curt, a gorgeous reprieve from the preceding funeral march. The final pizzicatos were the one indulgence, with the pregnant rests before the final one lasting a sublime eternity before cadencing.

But no rest for the weary. Mehta pushed forward, barely allowing the previous movement to hang in the air before being swatted away by the timpani. Unsurprisingly, he was brisk in the Scherzo. While lacking the sardonic edge often found in this movement, it was still vital music, seeming more an outgrowth from the Ländler’s triple meter dance.

Urlicht was exceptionally brisk, an actual chorale tempo, from the first note. It was refreshing with the simplicity of the melody carrying the text. Unfortunately, mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura didn’t have the breath control to make it through the phrases, even at this tempo. While an attractive sound, particularly in her authoritative lower register, the voice was uneven throughout its range.

In the final movement, as throughout, Mehta was in complete control, searing through the music and drawing out the necessary thrills from the brass and percussion. While his tempos were still swift, the conductor occasionally pulled time in order to build up to the next climax. The offstage horn calls, trumpets and percussion, combined with the flute solos onstage, made for a thrilling aural experience. The Los Angeles Master Chorale (with dominating second basses) were breathtaking in their entrance.

Unsurprisingly, Mehta let the chorale inform his tempo here, refusing to linger too long, but steadily marching forward. Soprano Golda Schultz (a last-minute substitute) was a radiant presence with a luxuriant, if not always subtle, vocal color.

If the hair-raising “Bereite dich zu leben” from the LAMC were any indication, Mehta was not one to bask in sentimentality. The maestro surged forward through the finale even as one wished he’d linger just a bit longer. The thunderous pipe organ, the large onstage bells and percussion rang out through the hall in the thrilling conclusion. The several minutes of applause allowed a glimmer in the maestro’s eye, and by his response to the players he just lead, who applauded in kind and conversed with him, was touching.

Mehta returns to reprise this program with the Phil in January. “Aufersteh’n” and get your tickets.

*****