N.Y. Philharmonic: how it was with Mehta away. Guest maestros helped keep the orchestra alert

What does an orchestra do when its music director goes on sabbatical - refresh itself, or turn aimless? For the New York Philharmonic, refreshment seems to have been the answer. Over this past calendar year, its music director, Zubin Mehta, was off on a well-earned hiatus of guest conducting, resting, studying, and pleasure cruising. So the Philharmonic turned to an imposing list of guest maestros to keep the players on their toes and find new approaches to standard and not so standard pieces.

This season began with three programs led by Sir Colin Davis and discussed in these pages a few months ago. Since then, the lineup has included Leonard Bernstein, who combines his Philharmonic visits with live commercial recordings; East German maestro Kurt Sanderling, who made a welcome return to the podium; Leonard Slatkin, who was back for three programs; and even the young San Francisco-based conductor Kent Nagano, who made his Philharmonic debut.

All this ensured that Mr. Mehta would find an alert orchestra on his return. And Mehta's two concerts I heard saw the Philharmonic in relaxed, expansive form. Mehta's gifts as a builder have been reaping results over the past few seasons, particularly in terms of consistency of playing, and general sonoric amenities. He has done as much as possible to tame the thorny acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall, a space not entirely flattering to large ensembles.

That acoustic caused passing problems in Olivier Messiaen's ``Turangal^ila-Symphonie,'' which Mehta offered for his first serious program. This unusually demanding score requires large forces and a dazzlingly strong pianist, as well as a soloist on the Ondes Martinot, an electronic instrument. From where I sat in the hall, the playing sounded rather cautious, and the Ondes Martinot was deafeningly loud.

All that said, Mehta proved astonishingly good at sustaining the rhythmic side of the score - sorting out the themes, lending the tumult a sense of exultancy, and in general, giving an accomplished reading. And throughout the evening, one got the impression that a rested Mehta and a refreshed Philharmonic were going to be making good music together for quite some time to come.

This was obvious in Wagner's ``Rienzi Overture,'' which opened Mehta's next program - a thrilling, expansive, glowing account of a piece too rarely heard these days. His accompaniment for pianist Maria Joao Pires in the Beethoven Fourth Concerto was pliant, sensitive, and very much in refined keeping with the lovely solo work. Miss Pires proved a gracious musician, with respect for traditions, yet a flair of her own that made this Fourth very satisfying.

And what about the orchestra under the other conductors this fall? Sir Colin had set standards of excellence in terms of orchestral ensemble and of caring musicmaking that have endured to the present. This was most evident in the Brahms Serenade No. 1 (D major), with which Leonard Slatkin closed his three-week visit.

The piece is rarely encountered in concert, probably because it is an orchestral rather than conductor's showcase. The Philharmonic did Mr. Slatkin proud, but then again, he knows that only when the orchestra plays truly well, and when the conductor has musical ideas that translate into inspiring performances, will something impressive happen.

Slatkin's ability to probe the essence of a score is but one of his strengths. This probing could be heard in his admirably balanced, stirring reading of Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony. But it was at its apex in his performance of the Faur'e ``Requiem,'' in which he so consistently caught the balance between intimate and grandiose that is at the core of the work. He was richly abetted by the Westminster Choir and by soprano Arlene Auger, who floated out the high-lying ``Pie Jesu'' with angelic and ethereal beauty.

The Philharmonic has always responded with particular vibrancy to Leonard Bernstein's ministrations. With Mahler's First Symphony, the results were unforgettable - Mr. Bernstein at his most spontaneous and dramatic, the orchestra playing to the hilt, communicating the requisite sense of urgency, and suffusing the score with tonal opulence. His reading of the Third, on the other hand, was burdened with an unnatural sense of event, of ``document'' - and no wonder, with that arsenal of microphones - that somewhat sapped his reading of vitality and seemed to drain the players of the zest encountered in the First.

The orchestra gave Mr. Nagano everything he seemed to want in his program. Curiously, this meant a leaden sound to accompany Bella Davidovich's ponderous and lifeless views of Chopin's spirited Second Piano Concerto, and a secure yet untheatrical manner in Bart'ok's suite from ``The Miraculous Mandarin.'' One sensed throughout that the Philharmonic was something of a coiled spring waiting to be sprung, and that Nagano was unable to find the way to accomplish that act.

When the Philharmonic wishes, it can sound as mellow and warm as a central European ensemble, as was proved when Mr. Sanderling led it in an authoritative, richly faceted reading of Brahms's Fourth Symphony. The strings had a burnished glow, the brass was quite under control, and the winds had a warmth that fused into something quite special.

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