Zubin Mehta. Photo: Wilfried Hösl.
They were the concertizing cat's meow. They made headlines. They boasted a collection of staggering talent -- decades ago.
So you have to count it as a momentous year's end when -- as a finale to the packed LA Philharmonic centennial -- these celebrated Israeli virtuosos came to Disney Hall at their old hunting grounds, Los Angeles.
Back here in the '70s they were affectionately dubbed the Kosher Nostra, partly because of their close bond, their popularity, attractive flashiness and, of course, their stellar musicianship. One of them, actually, was but an honorary Jew -- that would be Bombay-born, deli-loving Zubin Mehta, the idolized podium chief of the LA Phil from 1961-1978, a larger-than-life figure who carried the orchestra to world recognition.
He also became the Israel Philharmonic's music director-for-life (until recent retirement after 50 years), leading the band at the Middle East's warring front-lines -- especially in 1982, playing for Lebanese citizens who rushed the make-shift stage afterwards where he "saw Arabs and Jews hugging each other in joy."
And his reputation as the maestro who can hold an orchestra together, no matter what impromptu detours a soloist imposes, is legendary. His was also the baton-wielding presence for such starry icons as the Three Tenors (Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras) and many others.
But tempus fugit. So now we regard Zubie Baby and cohorts as gray eminences -- even while they are every bit as musicianly as before, if hardly the rapscallions they once were. Violist Pinchas ("Pinky") Zukerman and violinist Itzhak Perlman, a duo that once inspired the moniker "Fiddlers on the Spoof," could do an uproarious routine for an unsuspecting reporter.
And then there is pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim, also a member of the club and who, with his late wife, the celebrated British cellist Jacqueline du Pré, often joined the usual suspects.
Mehta circa 1965. Photo: LA Philharmonic.
Well, hugely grateful audiences turned out these last weeks at Disney Hall for the gang. Especially when Mehta managed to fulfill his dates with the Phil for a big Brahms festival -- this, after suffering shoulder surgery, a cancerous tumor treated successfully with chemotherapy and a just-performed hip replacement. Talk about heroes. This one embracing his title both at battle stations and before an orchestra.
Granted, it was a shock to see the once-swaggering, fiercely dark lion of exoticism now stepping with a cane, ever-so-slowly, to the podium where a chair awaited him. But there could be only bravos for his Brahms. Even as a seated maestro, a far less-physical leader and somewhat frail now, he held forth over luxuriously burnished strings, full-blooded cross rhythms, crisp voices in all sections for the 2nd Symphony -- its gorgeous themes without schmaltz but ever-building to important climaxes.
The playing was fresh and vigorous, even if the later-generation Yefim Bronfman's pianism seemed a tad relaxed in the Brahms 2nd Concerto.
But anyone attending Disney Hall for the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the famously détente band of Israeli-Arab musicians that is Barenboim's baby, had to be gobsmacked.
When has there ever been anything as gripping as what Barenboim and his Divaners delivered here? Talk about being blown away. Ask anyone who was there.
Could it possibly have been the inference that these brave and gifted musicians play together as a deep expression of détente? That they are outcasts, banned from appearing in their warring home countries? But that, with their leader, they forge a bond of brotherhood to eradicate hatred and stand as a living symbol of humanity? Of course that's all true.
But their commitment to musical greatness under the brilliant conducting of Barenboim did, without question, produce a night not to be forgotten. The program listed Richard Strauss's "Don Quixote," with cellist Kian Soltani and violist Miriam Manasherov, both of them tremendous artists; and there was Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, heard everywhere, all the time, but not like this. The encore was Wagner's overture to "Die Meistersinger, which held us rooted to the spot.
To see Barenboim's stick technique is to know how his mind constructs the shape of music and how he communicates it to his charges -- those eloquent, articulate hands, the economy of motion, clear direction. But what matters is what you can hear: players all drawing a single breath, swelling with unanimity, alternately expressing elegance, passion, grace, tenderness as indicated. The structural clarity, often exemplified by a dynamic rush with a pickup of tempos at phrase-endings, was mesmerizing.
Let's hope, for all those unlucky enough to have missed this single performance, that Barenboim and his Divan Orchestra returns.
A native returnee, Michael Tilson Tilson, brought his own wares to the LA Phil this time -- "Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind," as a contribution to the band's ongoing centennial. He started thinking about it back in 1976, inspired by Carl Sandburg's cautionary tale about America's narcissistic exceptionalism following WWI, its self-congratulatory patriotism.
In line with the poet's theme MTT concocted a potpourri of rambunctious forays into vaudevillian theatricality, modern classicism, jazzy gloom, refined and unrefined. It reminded us that the conductor/composer likes to spread himself across the whole musical horizon, that he is also an expert on Laura Nyro and James Brown, for instance, and doesn't occupy just a symphonic niche.
Neither does the violinist Jennifer Koh walk a conservative line. She played the Ligeti Concerto with smart backing by the LA Chamber Orchestra under David Danzmayr. (Remember her in "Einstein on the Beach" with the crazy blonde wig and the constant refrains she played over the six-hour extravaganza?)
While many violinists might veer away from the sometimes torturous Ligeti, she met the challenge head-on, Did the audience catch its breath in the spectacle of her intense absorption, this dark collision with strands of microtonal glitter, this devil-may-care fury interrupted only by its clashes with exquisite delicacy? I think so. What mastery of every degree from force to fragility.
But not all was well in the experimental division of LA Opera. At Redcat, the company brought us the premiere of Ellen Reid's "Prism." And quite unlike last year's classy contemporary diversion -- Keeril Makan's "Persona" -- based on the Ingmar Berman picture, this work, with a ridiculously juvenile libretto by Roxie Perkins, belongs in the bin of failed student efforts, with all its flower-child gibberish.
Too bad. Because Reid, if she every develops the power of discernment -- and turns down such dabblings in gratuitous nudity and gratuitous obscenity -- could hook up with a real collaborator.