In the almost fifty years since he has been appointed musical adviser and, later, music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta has brought the ensemble numerous times to the United States. Despite their decades long relationship, performances have been inconsistent. Some interpretations of the standard repertoire have occasionally been lukewarm, even sloppy. As his years at the helm of the New York Philharmonic have also demonstrated, Mehta is less an orchestra builder than a technician, whose most resounding achievements have been with those ensembles that can produce a blended, coordinated sound without too much of a conductor’s interference. Now that Mehta has announced that he is planning to step down from his position with the IPO (in October 2019), this series of three consecutive nights at Carnegie Hall can be viewed as a farewell and the interpreters wanted to make sure that it is a memorable one. Happily, at least the first of the performances was an unqualified success.

Zubin Mehta © Steve J Sherman
Zubin Mehta
© Steve J Sherman

The program started with a New York première, the Footnote Suite for Orchestra by the Israeli composer Amit Poznansky. The work is based on themes from his score for the 2011 movie with the same title, directed by Joseph Cedar, about the strained relationship between a father and son, both Talmud scholars. It’s a typical illustrative composition that doesn’t ask for too much of the listener’s involvement. Built around a waltz-like structure, it invokes, perhaps, some of Shostakovich’s ternary music, minus its mordant irony. One can hear a series of additional neoclassical influences, from Stravinsky to Nino Rota, in this colorful, pleasant, well-crafted opus that should find its way into some other orchestras’ repertoire.

After this brief introduction, the evening continued with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor featuring Yefim Bronfman, a long-term collaborator of both Mehta's and the IPO's. Years ago, Bronfman impressed with the force and determination with which he approached Beethoven’s – or especially – Prokofiev’s scores. There was always a true poetical vein in his playing, but only recently has it become predominant. Few would have thought that he would pick, among hundreds of possibilities, a Debussy encore – here, Clair de lune from the Suite bergamasque – and that he would play it with such delicacy and restraint. His version of the Beethovenian masterpiece was one of an artist who doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone and has attained a level of wisdom that only comes with age. The impeccable technique is still there, but showing off his virtuosic capabilities is no longer a goal. Bronfman highlighted the work’s overall lyricism, beyond the superb E major Largo. Even the restless Rondo was somehow imbued with Schubertian melancholy. Every phrase was caressed with utmost sensitivity. Tonal finesse, graceful articulation and magical simplicity mattered more than anything else. At times, the orchestra seemed to revert to older habits and not get sufficiently involved, but, overall, the accompaniment was supportive of the pianist’s attempts to avoid a “Sturm und Drang” interpretation.

Zubin Mehta conducts the Israel Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall © Steve J Sherman
Zubin Mehta conducts the Israel Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall
© Steve J Sherman

Playing Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, depicting a hero battling both external critics and inner demons, can be challenging for any orchestra. The sonorities must be both luxurious and refined. Colorful details must properly be integrated in a meaningful overall musical arch. Occasional longueurs must be de-emphasized. A Hero’s Life is, though, a Mehta speciality and this particular reading, from the initial horn and cello triads to the solemn E flat conclusion, was coherent and exciting. The conductor’s gestures are less effusive now, but he easily communicated his intentions to a group of musicians with whom he has established a special bond. The several difficult build up and transition passages were confidently managed, without excessive sentimentality. The bickering in The Hero’s Adversaries was less menacing than humorous. Mehta drew warm, intimate playing from the ensemble in the final The Hero’s Retirement from this World, featuring a wonderful dialogue between the soulful and capricious violin arabesques, exquisitely rendered by concertmaster David Radzynski, and James Madison Cox’s steady horn.

As an encore, the IPO played not a trifle waltz but Mozart’s substantial Overture to the Marriage of Figaro. It was a version a tad too heavy but full of elegance and wit, a perfect ending for an outstanding evening.