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Seventy-Five, And Going Strong

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/22/2011 -  
Avner Dorman: Azerbaijani Dance (US Premiere, orchestral arrangement)
Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor

Yefim Bronfman (Piano)
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta (Music Director and Conductor)

Z. Mehta (© Zubin Mehta)

The only indisputable adjective describing Israel is “dynamic”

The people, the institutions, the way of life are simply quicker than anywhere else. Even without modern transportation, Moses’ 40 years in the desert would have been looked on as a waste of time by modern Israelis.

Like New Yorkers, Israelis have no time for honorifics or salutations. Courtesies are antithetical to progress. And while this attitude frequently antagonizes outsiders, it has enabled the mainly desert country with enemies on all sides to prosper internally.

Thus it is no surprise that, while the State itself is a bit over 50 years old, the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) started 12 years before its founding, in 1936. One doubts that it was entirely an artistic motivation to found the (then) Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, that it was created partly to bring skeptical Jews from sophisticated Germany and Central Europe to the uncharted deserts and dunes of the area. But from its inaugural concert–conducted by the iconic conductor of its day, Arturo Toscanini–it worked.

Today, after 75 years, the IPO, representing a country of eight million people, has attracted every artist and conductor in the world, and has gone on countless tours. Are these partly to divert recent controversial foreign policy decisions in Israel? That could be. The police presence in Carnegie Hall and protestors across 57th Street gave proof of Israel’s wary presence. But it hardly diverts from its musical value.

On this tour of the United States, they are playing very diverse programs, ranging from Haydn to Webern to a young Israeli composer. But mainly, they are showing a dynamic orchestra.

Like its rapid way of life, the IPO responds with alacrity to their conductor, Zubin Mehta. The crackling percussive Azerbaijani Dance by Avner Dorman, the sharp dissonances of Mahler’s Fifth, the martial music of Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto all came out with Uzi-fire precision.

Perhaps the original IPO had a more European feel, a more comfortable introspective tone. Today, it resembles those large American orchestras which give a machine-like attack and brilliance.

The IPO has certain shortcomings. Their brass section made some bloopers, their string section, while technically perfect, lack a certain warmth. But last night, this was secondary compared to a trio of exciting works.

Mr. Dorman’s dance from Central Asia was an orchestral tour de force, revised from his original piano piece. The tension came from irregular meters, from outbursts involving percussion and winds, even some ethnic notes by playing the inside of the piano with drumsticks. A short work with non-stop volition.

I can add little about Yefim Bronfman, the American-Isareli-Uzbek virtuoso, who plunged through Liszt’s powerhouse Concerto. This is a showpiece, pure and simple, and Mr. Bronfman dazzled with his usual energy. He could rhapsodize, he could plunge through the quadruple octaves, he whizzed through the finale, seemingly with neither fear nor hesitation.

Knowing Mr. Mehta and the IPO as well as he knows his fingers, it was terrific playing in minor Liszt. And oh, how we prayed for a solo encore showing more of the Bronfman soul. Neither God nor the pianist heard our prayers…but there will be other nights.

Zuban Mehta, born to conduct large orchestras, was equally at home in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The work gives scope for the conductor’s personality, and he broadened out some measures in the opening, he danced, only a scintilla heavy-handedly through the scherzo, and was–alas–all too moribund in the Adagietto, milking the strings and harp into an endless adagio.

Never mind, by the finale, Mr. Mehta had come back to life, bringing the IPO with him into the great chorale finale. Few great orchestras can fail in these, the most sheerly triumphant measures in Mahler. The IPO and Mr. Mehta ended with a glory that would have impressed Jericho’s battle-wearied Joshua himself.

Harry Rolnick



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