Israel Philharmonic makes a worthy run at Mahler’s Symphony No.1

United StatesUnited States Ben-Haim, Mahler: Israel Philharmonic / Lahav Shani (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 6.11.2022. (HS)

Lahav Shani © Marco Barggreve

Paul Ben-Haim – Symphony No.1

Mahler – Symphony No.1 in D major

On its first American tour since conductor Lahav Shani replaced longtime music director Zubin Mehta in 2020, the Israel Philharmonic re-introduced itself to San Francisco audiences with expansive works by Gustav Mahler and midcentury Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim. They delivered big sound and a clear understanding of where the music wants to go, which resulted in an enjoyable evening.

Shani, making his U.S. debut, has been associated with the orchestra since 2013 as piano soloist, bassist and conductor. The current 10-city tour, which was postponed by the pandemic, began last week in southern California and concludes with stops in Miami at the Arsht Center, Cleveland in Severance Hall and New York at Carnegie Hall.

A grueling schedule of daily concerts may account for some unsteadiness that made their San Francisco performance a bit ragged around the edges. Still, Shani and the orchestra capitalized on the big, memorable moments in both works.

Ben-Haim holds a pioneer’s position in Israel’s classical music history. European-born and trained, he was a conducting assistant to Bruno Walter and Hans Knappenbusch in Germany before emigrating to Palestine in 1933. Ben-Haim composed this First Symphony in 1940 for the nascent Palestine Symphony (which became the Israel Philharmonic after statehood in 1948).

The 30-minute piece reflects the composer’s signature Ernest Bloch-like Romanticism with tinges of Middle Eastern and Jewish musical tropes, notably in the long, exotic melodic line of the second movement. The outer movements travel in big buildups to crashing climaxes. If it all felt a bit disconnected, the culminations landed squarely.

There’s a Jewish thread running through Mahler’s Symphony No.1 in the wry references to vernacular music, which were among the highlights of this performance. The big fanfares and the solos throughout the orchestra came off great. However, quieter preludes and transitions – the sinews that connect these muscles – not so much.

The opening atmosphere, for example, was too loud, and it missed the mystery in the music’s airy portrait of nature. Shani’s steady tempos in this introductory section minimized what should have communicated a sense of improvisation. The muted-trumpet fanfares offstage were barely audible from my orchestra seat. But once the main themes arrived, all was well, with deft shadings of dynamics and a lovely flow. Shani made this happen with a knack for coloring both tone and pace.

The rustic, thumping Ländler of the Scherzo may have danced a bit too genteelly to get the most out of the contrast with the movement’s sweet interludes, but everything moved along smartly and focused on all the right elements.

The slow movement left the best impression. Principal bass Brendan Kane got things started with a solemn intoning of the minor-key ‘Frère Jacques’ tune, and it made its way around the orchestra nicely, the tread marked by timpani. Even better, the transition to and execution of the Klezmer-influenced middle section delivered all the color and swagger one could want.

The chaotic opening of the finale injected the required boisterousness, and the music settled into Mahler’s extraordinary journey from pending annihilation to a sense of hope and, finally, triumphal fanfares and brass hymns. Shani’s pacing was especially good.

Balances, as with the inaudible fanfares in the first movement, were a bit off. When the seven French horn players stood up and raised the bells of their instruments for that final descending scale, we missed what Mahler explicitly wanted, ‘to drown out the rest of the orchestra, even the trumpets’. The trumpets and trombones won this round.

The finish was still exciting enough to demand an encore, and Shani went back to Ben-Haim for that. Appropriately, it was the six-minute ‘Fanfare to Israel’ that dates from 1950. It opens with a brass fanfare and then begins a long build up to a triumphant climax, wedging in some Israeli-sounding tunes along the way. A reprise of the last few pages of the Mahler symphony might have been better.

Harvey Steiman

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