A nine-year report card on Mehta as he takes a sabbatical year

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Zubin Mehta's departure for a one-year sabbatical from his duties as music director of the New York Philharmonic seems a good time to take a look at what he has accomplished in nine seasons with the orchestra. The tenure of the Bombay-born maestro, who succeeded Pierre Boulez, has encompassed an odd mixture of high points and low - of a general appreciation (if not always rapturous acclaim) from his audiences, and an often testy and sometimes unkind reaction from many critics.

Antipathy among critics is nothing new to Mehta, but surely he had hoped to put such nettlesome, wearing attacks behind him by now. Yet, truth to tell, there are elements of Mehta's podium demeanor that provide fodder for his critics. He can appear aloof and detached from the performance. On occasion, when stepping onto or off the podium he affects an expression that can easily be misconstrued as arrogant.

Of course, Mehta first fired the imagination of the public and captured the attention of the media after taking the helm (at age 26) of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and turning that orchestra into one of America's best five or six ensembles.

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Also of interest to press and public was his jet-set schedule and lifestyle - never still a moment, gadding across the continent and the Atlantic with dizzying frequency to honor commitments in an increasingly visible and hectic, yet brilliant international career.

Even today, with his substantial commitment to the New York Philharmonic, his lifetime music directorship of the Israel Philharmonic, and his responsibilities as artistic director of the Maggio Musicale in Florence, he still spends a considerable part of his life in transit.

Mehta knew when he took on the Philharmonic that he was running the risk of overexposure. Generally he conducts close to two-thirds of a season's concerts, even though few music directors devote more than half a season to their ensembles and some considerably less. He also conducts at least one ``Live From Lincoln Center'' program on public television each year.

By now he has to fight being taken for granted by concertgoers here, though, unlike certain of his contemporaries, Mehta is firmly, expertly trained and seasoned in the standard repertoire, so that one can always expect good Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann from him.

Too often, however, there is the sense that things are not fully prepared at Philharmonic concerts, though this is as much the fault of management, for putting an impossible workload on the orchestra, as it is Mehta's for allowing it.

Last season, concertgoers began seeing more carry-overs of major pieces from one subscription series to the next, so that the pressures were a little less severe on the players.

But until everyone can agree that the Philharmonic schedule - with its three to four programs per subscription week, plus special concerts, day trips, overnight trips, recordings, children's concerts, etc., - is impossible, and that cost effectiveness for this highest paid of orchestras will always conflict with musical and artistic excellence, the situtation will not improve.

The list of conductors who will be filling in for Mehta - including Leonard Bernstein, Giuseppe Sinopoli, and Erich Leinsdorf, among many others - is impressive, and quite a compliment to the absent music director that musicians of such caliber are needed to take his place.

The Mehta I heard the last few weeks prior to his departure displayed the sort of musicianship we have, sadly, heard only infrequently at the Philharmonic over the past few years.

As recently as the beginning of the season, he and Itzhak Perlman had plowed through Bartok's extraordinarly Violin Concerto No. 2 as if on automatic pilot. But when I returned two months later to hear Mehta accompany Malcolm Frager in Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto, I was gratified to find the conductor meticulously listening and reacting to Frager's mercurial, witty, and elegant pianism and giving the soloist a framework for his Haydnesque approach to the piece.

Mehta then presented an expansive reading of Hindemith's stirring ``Mathis der Maler'' symphony which, though possibly lacking a particular shade of spiritual insight, was full of remarkable detail. He kept the brass superbly in check so that they never once overpowered the rest of the orchestra - a relatively rare accomplishment in Mehta performances.

At a later concert, Mehta gave the same sort of caring, nuanced, and shaded accompaniment to Murray Perahia, who was performing Beethoven's First Piano Concerto. One does not think of the delicate Perahia and the robust Mehta as ideal partners, but they challenged and complemented each other.

This monster concert - which lasted over 2 hours - concluded with Bruckner's Eighth Symphony, a work especially close to Mehta's heart. He has tended to drive his Bruckner in the past, but here he sat back and let the work unfold in all its splendor, with moments of surpassing beauty that remind us just how well this orchestra can play.

Mehta capped his farewell season with a glorious reading of the Verdi ``Requiem.'' That he had Luciano Pavarotti in very good form as a principal vocalist didn't hurt. Also present were soprano Susan Dunn, bass Matti Salminen, and mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett.

Mehta unfolded this work with theatrical poise and complete musical sincerity. The music got very loud, but only when the volume served a dramatic purpose. Mehta's handling of the quieter moments was sensitive and poetic.

At the hushed ending of the work, Mehta held those expressive hands overhead, clenched in tremendous tension as if to forbid applause or noise of any kind until he was ready for it. It was uniquely a Mehta gesture, one that reminded how much he can give under the right circumstances.

Here's hoping his sabbatical gives him the rest he seeks as well as the time to put his priorities and musical needs in order, so that when he returns next year he will be refreshed and eager, once again, to bring the Philharmonic into the prominence it ought to have as one of America's finest orchestras.

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