Saturday, July 21 , 2018, 10:29 am | Overcast 67º


Review: Art Transcends Age for Conductor Zubin Mehta and Israel Philharmonic

Legendary conductor returns to Santa Barbara, but delivers spirited performance even if limits are showing

Conductor Zubin Mehta has slowed with age, but still brought a sparkling performance to Santa Barbara with the Israel Philharmonic. Click to view larger
Conductor Zubin Mehta has slowed with age, but still brought a sparkling performance to Santa Barbara with the Israel Philharmonic. (David Bazemore photo)

The experience was nostalgic and not a little heartbreaking last week at the Arlington Theatre.

It was the first visit to Santa Barbara by the Israel Philharmonic, but for conductor Zubin Mehta, who regularly brought the Los Angeles Philharmonic to town from 1962 to 1978, the orchestra’s 2017 American tour, particularly the Southern California engagements, represented both homecoming and farewell.

The 81-year old maestro will step down as the Israeli orchestra’s Conductor For Life in 2019 after 50 years at the helm – a phenomenal artistic achievement. It’s not likely we’ll see him again.

Those in the audience old enough to remember the vigorous young genius of those halcyon concerts at The Granada Theatre in the 1960s were likely shocked by the vicissitudes of age visible on the venerable conductor’s face and in his gait as the concert got underway.

But by evening’s end, the completely sold-out house came away reassured that Mehta’s mind was strong, if not his body.

As one of those who attended Mehta’s concerts here in the ’​60s as a teenager, I was shaken when the stage door opened and, after some nervous seconds, a frail old man stepped hesitantly onto the stage, appearing muddled and unsure where to go or what to do.

After several more agonizing moments, as Mehta stood in place looking out into the hall blankly, he shuffled slowly to the podium for the opening piece, Amit Poznansky’s Footnote Suite for Orchestra.

Immediately taking a modest but terrifying tumble trying to climb the couple of steps to his podium, members of the orchestra steadied him for the ascent of what looked now to be the instrument of his eminent demise. A dizzy spell or incorrect calculation of the edge of the podium, and we might have lost him then and there.

Things were tense for the first few minutes of the concert.

Born in 1974, Poznansky is one of Israel’s best-known film composers. Footnote, Suite for Orchestra is made up of music composed in 2011 for the film of the same title, which was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film in 2012, and examines the fragile egos of father-son academics.

The score is wry and often comical, sprinkled with waltz tunes and other archaic musical fragments that hint of another era. Mehta, though obviously slower than 40 years back, nevertheless displayed his characteristically clean conducting technique.

The orchestra, a behemoth (110 musicians) played beautifully for their beloved maestro.

A depressing, slow-motion exit, another several minutes spent wondering whether he’d come back on stage, but the show must go on, and Mehta trundled back to the podium without incident for the second work on the program, Mozart’s Symphony No. 36 in C Major (Linz).

Then he punked us, deliberately feigning a stagger, his famous smile freshening his countenance at the success of the prank, a sparkle animating his eyes as he indicated he wasn’t dead yet! We gasped, we laughed. Wonderful.

The swagger of youth tempered by his age, the flame was not out yet, as Mehta conducted the work from memory, missing not a single cue.

Minimalist gestures — a slight nod here, a quiet turn there, the rhythm of his hands discreet but at the same time electrifying — made it clear his mind was sound. Exquisite shaping of phrases, dynamics and cadences gave Mozart’s masterpiece clarity, transparency and elegance; a memorably tight performance by both orchestra and conductor.

After intermission another shocker! The stage door opened and Mehta cantered to the podium, his step confident, body language and demeanor lithesome as he conducted an energized and breathtakingly beautiful performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major (The Great).

Placing the orchestra’s wind section in the front row, Mehta created a chamber music ambiance, the interweaving woodwind lines finally discernible. Great idea!

The four movements of the symphony flew by.

An encore, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture, was edified by a sparkling performance that jumped off the page and into our hearts.

Kudos are due UCSB Arts & Lectures, which hosted this special evening of great music by great musicians.

Noozhawk contributing writer Daniel Kepl can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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