Friday, 8 January 2016


Esplanade Concert Hall
Thursday (7 January 2016)

What a difference a year and a bit makes. When the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) under its Music Director for life Zubin Mehta made its Singapore debut on 11 November 2014, it had the misfortune of performing at the Marina Bay Sands Mastercard Theatre. The result was a concert marred by truly terrible acoustics and scandalously bad sound engineering, which led one to wonder what the orchestra would have sounded like in a proper concert venue.

This concert at Esplanade Concert Hall, which marks the orchestra and the maestro's 80th birthday season, was exactly what it should have been. There was a straight-forward programme of purely orchestral works (no concertos in sight) with Tchaikovsky (as it was the last time) to close. First, the capacity-filled hall rose to greet both the national anthems of Singapore and Israel, Majulah Singapura and Hatikvah respectively, as it did in the previous outing.

Straight away, the difference in sound quality was apparent, and that continued into the first work, Beethoven's Leonore Overture No.3. The slow introduction highlighted the orchestra's discipline, and its homogeneously fine string sections, leading into the invigorating allegro which bristled with with energy and adrenaline. The offstage solo trumpet provided the work's pivotal moment, and it resounded clearly – not once but twice – signalling the arrival of the forces for good, and the overture barrelled its way to a triumphant conclusion.

Next up was Ravel's La Valse, an outright showcase of orchestral virtuosity. Double basses gave the pulse to its subterranean rumblings, and soon the swirling dancing couples came out in their glory. This was decadent and decaying Vienna as viewed through the Frenchman's eyes, an inexorable and fatal dance skirting and plunging into the abyss that was to be the First World War. 

The IPO gave a very polished account, which may have sounded a little safe in its outset, but Mehta soon cajoled it into more dangerous territory, giving the brief impression of losing control outright. But that is that very illusion that makes this work sound exciting, its uncertainty and the seemingly hazardous ride. Of course the piece was in good and safe hands throughout and  closed with brilliant aplomb.

After a long intermission, the orchestra returned with Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony “Pathetique”, the Russian composer's last work, which received its first performance just a week before his death (from suspected suicide, cholera or poisoning, who knows?) This is the final will and testament of a terminally depressive person, but all this was lost on an audience who was largely there for the occasion, with little clue as to what the music was all about.

How else would they have glibly and blithely applauded after every movement, including the shouting of bravos after the third movement's Scherzo? In the past, conductor Mehta would have raised a hand, as a kind of instructing “not yet”, but on this occasion, he let it pass, as if resigned to the futility of it all. A pity, because all this unwanted clapping disrupted the concentration and flow of thoughts that would have taken place between movements.

Despite all that, it was still an excellent and heartfelt performance. The first movement operated with the finesse of chamber music. The quiet and rapt opening with just basses and solo bassoon set the mood, and the strings shone yet again in the movement's obvious plaintive theme. There were wonderful solos from flute, clarinet and bassoon, and the balance between pathos and bombast was finely poised. The second movement's bittersweet waltz, taken with a slightly leisurely pace, belied the violence to come that was the Scherzo's imperious march. 

Here, orchestra's virtuosity came to bear, making light work of the movement's fast-unfolding triplets, and the tension was ratcheted to a seemingly unbearable level. And yet there was more to offer, until it came to its rapturous close, echoing the finales of both the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. Where silence was a premium, and this would lead into the finale of extreme catharsis, what we got instead was loud, misplaced applause. No matter how well-meaning the gesture was, it still disrespected the music and the composer's intentions.

The finale was taken at a moderately broad tempo, which seemed right, and there was none of the protracted posturing that Bernstein imposed. The progression of descending notes makes this the most depressing of music, and that was what IPO delivered to the very end. There was a real pause for silence after the music ebbed away and before the applause and standing ovation took over. This was the least the Israel Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta, who conducted the entire concert from memory, deserved.

There were two very enjoyable encores to lighten the mood. More Tchaikovsky, with the Waltz from Swan Lake being a more upbeat counterfoil to the waltz in the symphony.  And to close, the rumble-tumble of Johann Strauss the Younger's Donner und Blitzen (Thunder and Lightning) Polka had everybody in titters whenever the trombones stood up for their cue. A birthday cake was wheeled in just as everyone on stage took their final bow and departed. One question remains: who gets to eat the cake?

Happy 80th Birthday,
Maestro Zubin Mehta &
the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra!

No comments: