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Zubin Mehta: Los Angeles Philharmonic
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At the age of only 26 Zubin Mehta became the youngest person ever to head a major American orchestra. In his 16 years as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic he elevated the orchestra to international acclaim. These renowned concerts from 1977 show them at their best with Mozart, Bartok, and Dvorak works.
The first thing you notice are Zubin Mehta's sideburns, as he stands on the podium in a newly released 1977 video of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, about to give the downbeat for Mozart's Bassoon Concerto. A tall, bearded young man, David Breidenthal, who plays with fluid elegance, is the soloist; he retired from the orchestra last year, somewhat wizened but still a terrific player. Although videos of orchestra concerts are rarely the most musically illuminating way to hear them, what with all the distracting camera moves, they do provide the useful context of time and place. This is of particular interest when it comes to the Philharmonic. In 1977, Mehta was in his 13th and second-to-last season as music director. He was still plenty dashing. His Philharmonic was a band of super-quick responders playing a program that also contained a quick-witted Bartók Concerto for Orchestra and an unusually fiery version of Dvorák's usually more bucolic Eighth Symphony. The Philharmonic, after 16 years with Esa-Pekka Salonen, is still such a band. But the sound has changed considerably. Mehta's model was the warm golden tone of the Vienna Philharmonic, and he achieved a pretty good New World facsimile. The current orchestra is more varied in its color palette, more transparent, more immediately vibrant, more new era. Mehta's Bartók has swagger; it's an exciting, well-prepared performance. His Dvorák is occasionally over the top (there is also a showoffy "Carnival" Overture). He is cocky, of course, but the performance takes on an intriguing and surprisingly appealing historical resonance. Just look at the hair on the players. These were the garish '70s, and this is garish Dvorák perfectly in tune with the times. Even the Pavilion doesn't look quite so unfortunate if you can put yourself back in a '70s mind-set.
One comparison, though, cannot be escaped. Music director-designate Gustavo Dudamel got that designation after conducting Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra at his first Walt Disney Concert Hall appearance in 2007, almost exactly 30 years after the Mehta performance the DVD immortalizes. Dudamel's performance has also been preserved -- as a Los Angeles Philharmonic iTunes download. And what a difference three decades makes. The swagger is ever greater, the playing arrestingly more vivid. Still, Mehta's DVD sonics have it all over last year's download technology. Not even Dudamel in Disney can equal the equivalent effect of Mehta in Dorothy when high fidelity is lowered to a minuscule sampling rate. --Los Angeles Times, Mark Swed, October 2008
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The concert takes place in Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and it is not dark like that in there. However, don't go by the cover illustration. That's just a stock photo, not a still shot from this video. In fact, I suspect it was probably chosen to make this video seem brighter by comparison.
Otherwise, does it give the feeling of being there? No, unless you were roving around the stage during performance, almost literally sticking your face in various players' laps, viewing their machinations and fingering from three inches away.
However, I can deal with that. It was done by Unitel in 1977, the same company and timeframe that produced the ubiquitous and annoying Karajan videos. It was very obviously done by the same director, with so many extreme closeups, TMI moments of oboe players putting reeds in their mouths, etc.
Most disconcerting of all, for a disconcerting concert experience, is the sound is not in good synch with video. I have had this problem with many DVD's, but this is the first Blu-ray I've experienced it with. The sound is off by about 105 milliseconds, with the sound coming first of course (which of course is utterly impossible in the real world).
The first piece, the Mozart bassoon concerto, is the least off. It is 'only' about 40 milliseconds off. However, it is the darkest and smudgiest video, and could turn you off watching any more of the video. However ... the picture does improve for the later pictures, but alas, the sound goes more out of synch.
For the Bartok and Dvorak pieces, the picture is much clearer and brighter, almost acceptably so. However, the sound is off by about 105 milliseconds. It is hard to determine exactly without several viewings but I believe 105 is very close. Watching the Dvorak Symphony on occasion I felt 110 was a better setting; but after that I went back to 105. So I feel 40 for the Mozart, and 105 for the remainder are the best settings (but will probably be further tweaked in the future). If anyone else has come up with different numbers, I'd like to hear them.
One thing for sure, watching it with no sound synch correction is not an option, it is a jumble. You will absolutely need a sound delay box with increments of 1 millisecond, and adjustable via remote 'on the fly'.
Soundwise and performance-wise, I have no complaint. The low rating is for the video problems, and the high asking price in light of the problems.
If you want a good video of Mehta conducting, with a great performance and a reasonable price, try out Zubin Mehta Conducts Gabrieli, Haydn, and Verdi.
The musical significance can be judged on the basis of the performances preserved on this disc. The program taken from more than one concert includes Mozart's bassoon concerto, Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra and Dvorak's eighth symphony, Carnival Overture and Slavonic Dance in g minor.
The concerto, which is very well played in a completely non-demonstrative fashion by the lead bassoonist David Breidenthal, was chosen simply as an example of the habit of regularly featuring various players from the orchestral ranks as concerto soloists. This implies a depth of soloist potential within the orchestral ranks, this being one very good example. Mehta and his orchestra accompany with complete empathy.
The Bartok Concerto for orchestra is far more taxing technically and gives the sections and individual members of the orchestra plenty of opportunities to shine. And so they do. This was a Mehta 'party-piece' at the time and was a clear challenge to other more established orchestras at a time when this piece would still be regarded as challenging. Mehta gives no quarter as regards choice of tempi and the performance is a virtuoso 'tour de force.' It is also very exciting.
The Dvorak pieces were more standard items at the time and would be well known to the audiences. They all receive very exciting and notably virile performances, the symphony in particular being arguably one of the most exciting performances on record. The performance style of these pieces is straightforward with up-beat tempi maintained to great effect at the climax points. There is no holding back to admire passing detail, although all details are well delivered. The main thrust of each of these three pieces is to deliver excitement and drama at relatively high velocity, and it works.
The recording quality has been lovingly attended to although the proviso has to be that these are historic recordings. That proviso must apply to the imaging which does not benefit from modern lighting and more sensitive camera equipment. However, it is good enough to give pleasure in the performances and the imaging has been cropped to fill a wide-screen playback without any perceptible loss around the edges.
The sound is in good stereo bearing in mind the source material. This is not as good as that associated with studio recordings on CD as the lower frequencies can lack that sort of detailed clarity an there is also a suggestion of dynamic compression as the climaxes do not expand to the extent that they would today. However, the sound is more than sufficient to give plenty of satisfaction and to faithfully demonstrate the prowess and quality achieved by the orchestra at that time. As an historical recording this can be judged a considerable success and not a cause for concern.
This is a disc which had been a of very doubtful attraction on the basis of its age and the obvious doubling up of recorded material where excellent recordings already existed. However, after listening to the whole disc with those doubts very much in mind, I am pleased to report that they have been swept away by the sheer enjoyment of the listening and viewing experience.
This could be the beginning of a very useful and rewarding series if this standard can be maintained. As such it will likely be of considerable interest to collectors of good quality historic concert recordings.