Macro to Micro: Wagner to Webern With the LA Phil and Zubin Mehta

Jim Farber on January 13, 2020
Zubin Mehta | Credit: Monika Rittershaus

“Why are you laughing?” asked a genuinely perplexed Zubin Mehta.

He had taken up the microphone in anticipation of a performance of Anton Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments, Op. 24 and was trying to explain to Friday morning’s audience at Walt Disney Concert Hall how the 12-tone system of composition worked.

The problem arose when Mehta began to explain the mathematics of the system in terms of divisions of three note phrases and four instrument pairings. That’s when a number of members in the audience began to twitter, as if they thought somehow that Mehta was talking to them like Mr. Rogers.

Anton Webern in 1912

Annoyed but undeterred, Mehta continued. He had the musicians perform examples to show how Webern’s 12-tone row could be mathematically divided, shared among the instruments, and rhythmically varied. It was an excellent explanation and demonstration that most of the audience found enlightening, offering a skeleton key to unlock the superbly crafted performance that followed.

During his brief monologue, Mehta also explained why a concert that ended with the spare atonality of Webern had begun with the opulence of Wagner — three continuous selections from Götterdämmerung — Siegfried’s “Rhine Journey,” the hero’s “Funeral Music,” climaxing with a tumultuous performance of the “Immolation scene” featuring soprano Christine Goerke as an imposing Brünnhilde.

“We could have done Beethoven’s Seventh or Tchaikovsky Four,” Mehta explained.   Instead, he said, the decision was made to connect Wagner’s music to the evolution of early 20th-century modernism by Arnold Schoenberg and his student, Anton Webern. But even the mention of Schoenberg on the program was enough to make quite a few patrons decide depart at intermission, while others made less-than-discreet exits during the second half.

Mehta’s Mighty Wagner

During his current series of concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta has explored the concertos and symphonies of Brahms and the magnitude of Mahler. But during his years as the orchestra’s music director (1962–1978) Mehta was also known for the full-speed-ahead power of his Wagner performances.

But since then the orchestra has evolved into a much more sophisticated ensemble guided by the gem-like attention to detail and atmosphere of Carlo Maria Giulini, the craftsman-like precision of Esa-Pekka Salonen, and the rainbow romanticism of Gustavo Dudamel.

Christine Goerke | Credit: Pierre Gautreau Photography

So as Mehta (who now conducts seated at the podium) raised his baton to begin the concert, the gentle flow of the Rhine rose in shadowy waves, the hero’s motive heralded forth in the brass, the funereal drum pounded, and the cymbals crashed. Then, with enough glitter to dazzle the eyes, Christine Goerke (well known for her Metropolitan and SF Opera appearances) processed regally onto the stage.

Her voice, which can reach the top tier of any opera house, resounded even more splendidly within the acoustically bright setting of Disney Hall. Goerke produced all the qualities you could ask for in a Brünnhilde: resounding tone, heroic stature, towering high notes, a warrior’s passion, and a deep, compassionate understanding of the drama.

Schoenberg Provides a Bridge

The LA Phil’s first performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1 in E Major took place on March 10, 1966, conducted by Zubin Mehta. It provided a perfect bridge between the two halves of the program. Composed in 1906, it was the last of Schoenberg’s tonal compositions, with only a hint of the dissonance he was soon to explore and develop. It is a piece that clearly reflects the composer’s link to Wagner, as well as the tone poems (particularly Don Juan) of Richard Strauss.

Mehta emphasized this connection in the performance, as the single movement work (with five distinct sections) modulated between heroic, light-footed momentum and dulcet moments of nocturnal repose expressed in Schoenberg’s use of brilliant orchestral coloration.

Then Mehta transitioned to the music of Webern, moving from macro landscapes to micro details and crystalline construction. The first work, Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 (first composed in 1909 and revised in 1928), offers a succession of brief, complex orchestral song-paintings with an average length of 25 measures. Their brevity makes every instrumental voicing and contrast stand out, pizzicato strings against tolling bells, somber drumbeats against muted horns. Reminiscent of the paintings of Paul Klee, the music speaks volumes with poetic concision.

Then came the final work that Mehta prepared his audience for, the spare specificity and 12-tone mathematical precision of the Concerto for Nine Instruments. The audience may have not realized it, but there was a subtext to Mehta’s musical bridge between 19th- and 20th-century German composition. On Feb. 7, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the orchestra will begin a multiweek exploration of German expressionism and the composers of the Weimar Republic including music by Weill, Hindemith, and Schoenberg. The survey will culminate the weekend of Feb. 13 with a complete performance of Kurt Weill’s opera, The Seven Deadly Sins. This concert, in a direct way, set the stage for that mini-festival.

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