Mehta, Now Grand Old Maestro, Flips Switch In A Vibrant Mahler Third

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Zubin Mehta led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in performances of Mahler’s Third Symphony at Disney Concerto Hall. (Photos by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging)

LOS ANGELES – There has been some chatter in the national music press recently about the last stand of a generation of maestros who are now doing some of their best work in their late 70s or 80s. We have heard about Michael Tilson Thomas making superb music as a guest conductor while fighting a relentless disease, ditto Daniel Barenboim in Berlin. Riccardo Muti is closing in on the final days of a memorable reign at the Chicago Symphony. Skip back a generation, and the critics have been hailing the miracle of the still-potent powers of Herbert Blomstedt at 95.

But there is one important name that hasn’t come up much — Zubin Mehta, who will turn 87 in April and also has battled illnesses in recent years. Yet since 2019, for two weeks during each of the last few seasons before and after the Covid shutdown, Los Angeles Philharmonic audiences have been witnessing the Mehta miracle as the Phil’s former music director (1962-1978), now its conductor emeritus, has been consistently giving some of the greatest performances of his life.

Indeed, the latest one in Walt Disney Concert Hall on March 5 couldn’t miss — Gustav Mahler’s gigantic Symphony No. 3, the work that, during his collaboration with the Phil, Mehta referred to as “our song.” The one that had to wait until 1965 for its first LA Phil performance, which happened to be under the direction of Hans Swarowsky, Mehta’s conducting teacher in Vienna.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale, and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus performing Mahler’s Third Symphony under Zubin Mehta

The Mahler Third was the gemstone of Mehta’s final recording sessions with the LA Phil as music director, a 1978 sonic spectacular for Decca that had tremendous energy but also deeply felt poetry and stillness. The lingering slow movement that concludes the symphony could be interpreted as the conductor’s farewell to his California orchestra as he was about to depart for the New York Philharmonic. Mehta has since recorded the Mahler Third again with the Israel Philharmonic (1992) and with the visiting Bavarian State Orchestra (2004) in Vienna, but he never surpassed the performance on the LA Phil recording. Until now.

The performance I heard, the fourth of four over the weekend, was a truly great Mahler Third, an all-timer. It had everything you would want — drama, logic, drive, poetry, mystery, and tenderness without schmaltz. The mad, mad marches of the lengthy opening movement had all of the old snap and crunch. Time stood still during the “posthorn” meditation passages of the third movement (played by Thomas Hooten on a Yamaha C cornet from above and behind the orchestra level seats, an eyewitness reported), and the songful finale poured forth as naturally as from a stream.

What made it more special than even the best of Mehta’s Mahler Thirds of the past, live or recorded, was an even more highly developed control of parameters that can give music added life and emotional force. His father, Mehli Mehta, who conducted into his 90s, used to talk about his role model, John Barbirolli (for whom he was concertmaster of the Hallé Orchestra), saying you could find out everything he wanted from an orchestra just from watching the tip of his stick. That’s the feeling I got from Mehli’s son on this occasion.

Conducting from memory while seated, Mehta used the baton to indicate all kinds of little nuances in phrasing, accents, and micro variations in tempo that added just the right amounts of seasoning to passages of music without ever going over the top. Little details like the oboe sliding up to reach a note in the fourth movement (as suggested by Mahler in the score but usually overlooked) were followed. The climaxes were exquisitely set up, timed just right for maximum impact. There’s a case to be made that it takes a lifetime to accumulate the degree of wisdom and control that Mehta used in the service of Mahler.

While the Mehta performances of Mahler 3 on record gradually got slower and slower from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv to Vienna, this performance snapped back to the earlier, quicker overall pace in L.A., even exceeding the original by several seconds. Some individual tempos within movements were slower than before, others faster — particularly the meditative fourth movement — yet nothing felt rushed or dragged.

Also, the 2023 edition of the LA Phil is in an altogether higher league than the LA Phil Mehta left in 1978, however much he improved it during his tenure as music director. That was a long time ago, but the Mehta sound — a dark, ample-bodied, slightly congested overall timbre that allows for muscular and graceful gestures, now more refined and detailed than before — sprang back to life as it does whenever he appears here.

Zubin Mehta departed from the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the New York Philharmonic in 1978.

Alto Gerhild Romberger was smooth and steady in her fourth-movement song that burrows deeply into the cosmos, and the contingency of women from the Los Angeles Master Chorale and boys from the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus sang beautifully in their brief appearances in the fifth movement.

Conserving his energy for the final stretch, Mehta gradually became more physically animated in the finale, finally spreading his arms wide in exultation as the coda’s climax unfolded, ultimately rising to his feet for the final pounding bars. It was a masterful performance, the kind that lingers in the mind.