Zubin Mehta conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1962-1978 and revisited Walt Disney Concert Hall to lead the orchestra in the west coast premiere of Ravi Shankar’s Sitar Concerto No. 2 “Raga mala” (A Garland of Ragas) with Anoushka Shankar, the late sitar guru’s daughter, and Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.
Mehta’s charismatic personality, on and off stage was on display and watching him preside over the LA Phil is like spending time with a good friend of many years who projects soothing vibes of confidence and wisdom.
Conductors are notorious for their energetic longevity and eighty-year old Mehta is the essence of composure; his graying hair has the look of distinction, but most important, he is still able to achieve stunning musical results from the LA Phil with the use of compact, streamlined gestures rather than muscular flamboyance. Shankar’s second sitar concerto, nearly one hour long, received its premiere in 1981 with the New York Philharmonic under Mehta, to whom it was dedicated.
The four movement work contains twenty-nine different ragas associated with different times of the day – the definition of which can best be explained by Ravi Shankar himself, in an interview with NPR (4.6.2010): “Ragas are the moods or emotions of Indian music.” Internationally recognized cross-culture artist Anoushka Shankar is a vision of serenity.
Sitting on a colorful rug in quasi-yoga position, atop a riser, she made the eight-hundred year old sitar tradition an accessible art form for western ears by producing a wondrous variety of intonation, improvisation and virtuosic flourishes with scale-like passagework and their endless combinations.
You don’t need to be an ethnomusicologist to enjoy this sitar concerto, as Shankar’s orchestration contains tonal and rhythmic patterns found in western music notation – which composer Jose Luis Greco helped to orchestrate. What makes this piece exotic is the clever interweaving of instruments with sitar by way of a wind machine, xylophone, chimes, snare drum, celesta and conga, among others.
The orchestra’s collaboration was brilliantly conceived and controlled by Mehta’s innate understanding which provided finely balanced and razor-sharp support, textural nuances and terrific solo and duo contributions from Nathan Cole (violin), Ben Hong (cello), Burt Hara (clarinet), Thomas Hooten (trumpet), along with magically sonorous duets between sitar and harp (Lou Anne Neill) and flute (Catherine Ransom Karoly).
After intermission, Mehta, conducting without a score, and orchestra dove into Ein Heldenleben - and after an ‘on the fly’ start from the celli, the performance quickly jelled into a reading that became an epic and expansive melodrama of good trumping (no pun intended) the dark side for its sweeping dynamics, uncompromising intensity from each section and finesse solo playing from concertmaster Martin Chalifour. The approach was vintage Mehta where lush melodies take off like waves of kaleidoscopic sound reaching higher and higher climaxes. It’s big, full throttle orchestral playing with grandiose phrasing and architectural sweep - which produced an overwhelming emotional effect. The kindred partnership between Zubin Mehta, the LA Phil and audiences continues.