Lumbering Ravel and a Plodding Eroica from the Israel Philharmonic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bardanashvili, Ravel, Beethoven: Israel Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 8.11.2015 (HS)

Josef Bardanashvili: A Journey to the End of the Millennium
Ravel: La Valse
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”


Whatever magic may still exist in the long relationship between the Israel Philharmonic and its music director since 1977, Zubin Mehta, was not on display Sunday evening in a stodgy concert presented under the auspices of San Francisco Symphony. Other than making sumptuous sounds, the ensemble careened through a program that made little of music from modern-day Israel, post-World War I France and Napoleonic Germany.

Lavish arrangements of the national anthems of both USA and Israel for an outsized orchestra should have been a clue that subtlety was not to be found on this menu. “The Star-Spangled Banner” sounded as if it were coming from a college marching band arrayed at midfield. “Hatikvah,” much of it played fortissimo, had more counter-melodies and polyphony than the anthem—essentially a simple hymn—could handle.

Josef Bardanashvili, the Georgian-born composer now living in Israel, fashioned his symphonic poem, A Journey to the End of the Millennium, from his 2005 opera of the same name. According to the program notes, in its 28 minutes, the orchestral piece relies on small musical gestures and snippets rather than larger sections in the manner of, say, Richard Strauss or Franz Liszt. Maybe that’s why it sounded so disjointed.

The opera covers the entire history of the Jews from early biblical days to the present, which may account for some solo violin and viola phrases that adhered to enharmonic tuning and clashed with the modern intonation of the rest. But if the composer intended for the audience to follow a narrative, most listeners were unlikely to have heard the opera, and had no reference points to grab onto. The series of discrete sections—alternately dissonant and sweet, blaringly loud and hushed—overstayed their welcome by about 15 minutes.

Ravel’s La Valse has theatrical origins, too. The composer wrote it on commission for a Diaghilev ballet, but the impresario declined to produce it. Famously, the piece reflects how out-of-place the upbeat emotions of the Viennese waltz clashed with a weary and battered Europe post World War I. Mehta drew textures as dense and plush as possible, and seemed intent on robbing the music of flexibility. Muddy rhythmic vitality didn’t help either.

In Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, the orchestra’s articulation wavered between a soft-edged, sonorous style that harked back to the mid-20th century and the more brittle, hard-edged approach favored today, intended to evoke the sound and feel of the instruments Beethoven would have known. As the strings changed their sound to extract as much richness as possible, the timpanist countered with hard sticks to get crisp articulation. Tempos found only occasional agreement among the sections, creating an experience obscured by sonic overlays that occasionally cleared to display what Beethoven was going for, momentarily at least.

There were no obvious mishaps, and the 79-year-old conductor basked in warm applause. There were no encores.

Harvey Steiman



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