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Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
70th Anniversary Series Opening
Sunday night's opening of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra's 70th season featured a glittering array of international music celebrities - pianist Evgeny Kissin, violinist Julian Rachlin, cellist Mischa Maisky and, of course, conductor Zubin Mehta.
Mehta had the audience on its feet from the start: Following a long-standing IPO tradition, the season opened with the playing of "Hatikva." Education Minister Yuli Tamir then took the stage to make a gracious speech emphasizing the stature and importance of the symphony both in Israeli and abroad. She noted that because the IPO was founded more than a decade before Israel, it is as if the orchestra played a role in founding the state.
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This being the third night of Hanukka, Tamir and Mehta then symbolically lit a massive menora with amusing technical difficulties. With the "shamash" deeply stuck into the elaborate candelabra, Tamir attempted to light the three Hanukka candles with kitchen matches. After several trials, Mehta attempted to light the last stubborn candle with his baton. (Perhaps this accounted for his fiery conducting later in the night.) After the last candle was lit, the pair skipped the blessings and Mehta led the orchestra and audience in an energetic rendition of "Maoz Tsur."
Adding a somber note to the gala celebration, Mehta asked the audience to stand once again and pay tribute to pianist Pnina Salzman, Israel's First Lady of piano, who died in Tel Aviv over the weekend at 84.
The music itself was conservative, looking backward rather than at more contemporary works. (The newest music of the night was by Brahms, who died in 1897.) Israeli works were conspicuously absent.
Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony sounded like a warm-up piece, accurate but perfunctory in tone. In the second movement, the second subject's intermediate notes were swallowed, and the general mood of indifference extended to some audience members, who allowed their cell phones to sound out repeatedly during the performance. Mozart deserved better attention from both the audience and the musicians.
Later in the evening, Kissin emphasized the lyrical aspects of Schumann's Piano Concerto - at times, unfortunately, at the expense of the enormous energy that underlies the work. Above all, the tension characteristic of Schumann's writing was missing, and Kissin's rendition did not convey the turbulence of the piece as it was intended (The turbulence of Kissin's mad-scientist hairdo was a different story, however, with the pianist's hair bobbing up and down for the duration of the piece). The concerto sounded healthy and functional - for a work composed by Schumann, too much so.
After fortifying itself with complimentary wine and jelly donuts at intermission, the audience returned for the highlight of the evening, Brahms' Concerto for Violin and Cello, performed by Rachlin and Maisky. Maisky's rich, resounding tone and his mature, intense expression blended admirably with Rachlin's brilliant, pure sound and his effortless virtuosity. The two played in perfect harmony, together capturing the spirit of the work. It was sweaty stuff, with the white-maned Maisky toweling himself off repeatedly between movements.
After repeated ovations, Mehta again addressed the audience - this time without a microphone - to pay homage to former concertmaster and orchestra manager Zvi Haftel, who was instrumental in bringing Mehta to the IPO in 1961. Calling Haftel "a fireball," Mehta acknowledged his role in founding the symphony alongside Bronislav Huberman and said that he and the rest of the IPO would never forget him.
At the very least, Haftel's musical voice will remain with the orchestra: The IPO recently purchased his Guadagnini, which is to be used by whomever holds the concertmaster chair.