American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
THE ISRAEL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA,
Zubin Mehta, Music Director for Life
Lang Lang, Piano
- Piano Concerto No.3 in D Minor
Lang Lang, Piano
(1864-1949) Till Eulenspiegel’s lustige Streiche
(1875-1937) La Valse
The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) appeared at Carnegie Hall for its one and only U.S. appearance on February 16th with its long-time conductor Zubin Mehta and guest pianist sensation Lang Lang. The Palestine Orchestra – renamed in 1948 The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra – was founded in 1936 by the Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman in response to the growing shadow of Nazi repression in Europe. His hope was to be able to create a permanent musical/cultural institution for a new country of mostly European immigrants. Maestro Mehta’s association itself dates back to 1961. In 1969 Mr. Mehta was appointed Music Director of the IPO and in 1981, Music Director for Life. Tonight’s Gala Benefit concert celebration was doubly poignant as it celebrated both the orchestra and Mr. Mehta’s joint 70th birthdays.
Filled to a capacity audience, the program opened with the American National Anthem, followed by Israel’s National Anthem, and then an impromptu rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ for the birthday ‘boy’. Mr. Mehta would already be very familiar to the New York audience through his long and celebrated tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic. (1978-1991). Benefit Co-Chair Lily Safra pointed out that the IPO has always enjoyed strong support and sponsorship in Israel and overseas; there has never been a single cancellation for a concert for any adverse circumstances, something that is remarkable considering Israel’s turbulent past. Ms. Safra, we were informed earlier in an introductory speech, was personally responsible for making this performance at Carnegie Hall possible.
Rachmaninoff’s famous warhorse, his much-loved Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, was an ideal vehicle for Lang Lang’s brilliant showmanship. ‘Celebrated in all the music capitols of the world, 23-year-old Lang Lang has demonstrated an extraordinary level of musicianship in the widest range of repertoire. / He is the first Chinese pianist to be engaged by the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and the top American orchestras’. (Press Notes). Obviously right at home on stage and completely absorbed by the music, his playing flowed easily, and was flexible in the tempi where the contours of the music demanded it.
The orchestra remained – to its credit – muted throughout most of the concerto, although some of the pianist’s mid range, especially in the detailed fast passagework, was muffled. Lang Lang’s engaging manner and visual flamboyance kept the audience on the edge of their seats throughout. What impressed me was the way in which he managed to tame this ‘monster’ – one of the most demanding in the repertoire – making it appear to be easier than it actually is. He also connected well with his listeners. After the audience indicated their enthusiasm Lang Lang offered an arrangement of one of Schumann’s songs, which was played with lovely tonal resonance and unhurried poise.
The second half of the program opened with Richard Strauss’ popular tone poem,‘Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche’ – ‘Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks’. With minimal outward display and crisply defined indications Mr. Mehta – conducting from memory and in total command – gave a colorful and vivid portrayal of Till’s roguish behavior. All does not end well for Till, as he is condemned and hanged for his bad ways; but the same cannot be said for the IPO’s performance, which was dazzling!
The IPO came into full gear for this second half of the evening, with an impressive display of virtuoso brass muscle and mellow winds. (Both sections were outstanding).
It is rare to hear an orchestra that can create a virtuoso display, while at the same time retain the intimacy of a much smaller ensemble. This was achieved to a large degree thanks to the vision of its conductor, Mr. Mehta. It also depends on the personal commitment of every member of the orchestra. While not overly powerful, the string section played with sweetness and refinement. This type of spontaneity of expression from the orchestra is something that can only come from the heart. Orchestra and conductor were obviously ‘on the same page’ and in complete sympathy.
Ravel’s ‘La Valse’ is a great example of ingenious orchestration (on a par with Richard Strauss in my opinion). This endearing piece creates all of the tragic charm of wartime Vienna, (WWI) with its swirling dance rhythms and its sense of nostalgic longing. The orchestra swayed and pulsated to the music as one, and sounded like a single instrument in the way great orchestras are supposed to sound, but rarely do. (Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra being a case in point.) I found myself totally absorbed in this fresh performance. The concert concluded with a shorter work of ‘the other Strauss’ as the encore, and left me wanting to hear more! It was a grand celebration, all the more so for being held in Carnegie Hall. Not only were we fortunate to hear a gifted young talent, but also to hear such a fine orchestra and conductor in a thoroughly enjoyable and exciting program. Hopefully this Gala Benefit concert will raise much needed support so that all of us can continue to hear this combination for many more years to come.