Visiting foreign orchestras usually attract a lot of members of the country's ethnicity to the audience. When we had an orchestra from Venezuela, there were Venezuelans. When we had one from Kazakhstan, there were Kazakhs. This time there were what appeared to be a lot of Russian Jews.
This was, I think, the first time I've heard in person the work of the orchestra's now venerable music director, Zubin Mehta (who is not Jewish). That was one reason to come. Another was curiosity about the obligatory opener from the orchestra's homeland, A Journey to the End of the Millennium by Josef Bardanashvili, a long (23-minute) tone poem inspired by an Israeli novel, by a composer born in then-Soviet Georgia and now living in Israel. In large part non-tonal, this was nevertheless an extremely interesting work that kept the attention. Packed with material, and never a slack passage, it drew interest to its colorful and well-balanced orchestration, and intricate work in rhythm and melody. It alternated primitivist music of brass cries and heavy percussion with quiet keening string solos full of minor intervals.
The heavy percussion and abrupt rhythms carried on into Ravel's La Valse, which in orchestration alone if not tone color or anything else could have been by the same composer, as far as this performance went.
After that, Beethoven's Eroica, one of his heaviest and most uncompromising symphonies, felt light and almost chamber-like, even though the timpani beats were still overly strong.
There was no encore. As soon as Mehta grabbed his concertmaster by the hand and started to drag him offstage (something I'd only seen Neville Marriner do previously), the thick applause went out like a light. It's as if the audience was thinking, "Why applaud if we won't get anything for it?" However, the concert had been prefaced by the playing of both the U.S. and Israeli national anthems, something I'd not heard a visiting foreign orchestra do the equivalent of before.
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