The last time the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Zubin Mehta, visited Davies Symphony Hall under the auspices of the San Francisco Symphony was during the winter of 2011. The ensemble gave two performances. The first, on a Sunday evening, was disappointing with regard to just about every dimension; but the performance that followed on Monday evening more than compensated for the impressions created on Sunday.
Last night the Israel Philharmonic returned to Davies, and there was no second chance. Sunday evening was their one opportunity to present themselves to Bay Area audiences; and, unfortunately, the “curse of 2011” was still with them. Whether it was a matter of jet lag or the unfamiliarity of the Davies space, the performance never rose about the level of “merely adequate;” and, for two of the three selections on the program, those by Maurice Ravel and Ludwig van Beethoven, adequacy just was not enough.
Beethoven seemed to fare best of all with the performance of his Opus 55 (“Eroica”) symphony (the third) in E-flat major. This took up the entire second half of the program, and it provided the most memorable moments with positive connotations. Even if they were isolated incidents, they still offered evidence that this was still not an ensemble to be dismissed out of hand. The sounds of the three horn parts in the trio section of the third (Scherzo) movement could not have been more polished and brought clarity to the contrapuntal gestures through which their music rises above the level of an ordinary fanfare. The rhetoric may have been smoother than what one would encounter with historical instruments; but, as a “contemporary” reading, the execution was stunning. On the other hand the timpanist seemed to appreciate the “shock value” Beethoven would have expected from the instruments of his day; and his choice of mallets and dynamic levels did much to honor that expectation.
Still, as already mentioned, these were isolated incidents. All too often it felt as if the underlying pulse that carries this symphony through four movements of extended (at least for Beethoven’s time) duration was in danger of faltering. There were even a few incidents that sounded as if the winds and strings were using different references for their intonation. The result was a sparse sequence of impressive moments hopelessly embedded in a context that was rarely anything other than laboriously drab.
The Ravel selection was “La valse;” and, as might be guessed, it was even more problematic. If the ensemble could not maintain the steady paces so fundamental to Beethoven’s rhetoric, the failure to capture the imbalance of what could justifiably be called the “waltz of the shell-shocked survivors of World War One” deprived the music of its rhetorical foundation. It almost seemed as if either Mehta lacked the ability to capture the unsteadiness of Ravel’s rhythms or the ensemble simply had collectively decided not to follow him into those unknown regions lacking any clear path to follow (with apologies to Walt Whitman). The bottom line was that all that was left of Ravel’s rhetoric could be found in dynamic levels; and, for the most part, those were too loud to be appreciated.
However, playing too loud may have been the order of the day established by the opening selection, Josef Bardanashvili’s symphonic poem “A Journey to the End of the Millennium.” This amounted to a symphonic paraphrase based on an opera Bardanashvili had composed, which was premiered in 2005. According to his notes for the program book, the opera was about “the mores of society at the dawn of the second millennium.” Paraphrases, of course, are most successful among listeners familiar with the source material. This was not the case last night, nor did Bardanashvili provide much of an account of the narrative of his opera to orient the curious listener.
Thus, what remained was for the listener to recognize (and, hopefully, be awe-struck by) a mighty noise. This was definitely pull-out-all-the-stops large ensemble music, reinforced by the driving rhythms of a large percussion section. The opening gestures seemed to recall some of the more stunning rhetoric that Carlos Chávez could muster, perhaps with a bit of additional coloration provided by Aram Khachaturian; but those sonorous impressions were quickly overcome by work in the string section that seemed designed to evoke the sounds of bowed instruments from the Ancient World. This was the sort of music that could be interesting over just about any five minutes of its duration. Unfortunately, the entire composition took between four and five times that long, meaning that just about every potentially effective rhetorical flourish overstayed its welcome.
Sadly, that idea of overstaying one’s welcome ended up pervading the entire evening.