Goodbye, Zubin. NOT A MOMENT TOO SOON, AND YET ... An appreciation

It seems that, within a few scant months, the heads of most of the musical institutions that make up the Lincoln Center family have announced their intentions to resign or retire. When Zubin Mehta, music director of the New York Philharmonic, announced his resignation, effective at the end of the 1990-91 season, it was not as surprising as it might once have seemed. There had been much speculation about just when he would step down, and, in some circles, there are those who would say that it was not a moment too soon.

Mr. Mehta arrived in 1978 with a sense of euphoria and under something of a cloud. That cloud was a carryover from the time a critic printed an off-the-record comment made by Mehta to the effect that he didn't think the Philharmonic was any great shakes (the colloquialism is mine).

The euphoria revolved around Mehta's glamorous profile, and his clout as one of London Records' major conductors: It was presumed that he would keep the Philharmonic in front of the microphones, as it had been under Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez, Mehta's immediate predecessors. Yet the mix was not magical. The record companies found that Mehta's New York Philharmonic records were not competitive, and the honeymoon with New York critics was exasperatingly short.

Familiarity breeds, if not outright contempt, at least pervasive ennui. Critics tend to be harshest on hometown operations and their musical captains, because they are exposed to them on a regular basis. And, given that the Philharmonic schedule often resembles a programmatic approximation of Industrial Revolution sweatshops, it is not surprising that musical magic is not always easy to create.

From the beginning, Mehta felt it important to keep alive the commitment to contemporary music, and this has led to a good deal of unpopular programming with an audience that is resisting even Stravinsky and Walton - let alone Adams and Carter - with alarming obstinacy. And Mehta also felt obliged to devote nearly two-thirds of a season to his orchestra in an age where less than half a season is considered commitment aplenty.

Mehta was on the podium a good deal of the season, and one cottoned onto all his strengths and weaknesses. It must be said that the fervor and 'elan that marked his early years hardened into something rather over-driven, even strident on occasion. This season, for instance, he offered a Bruckner Ninth that was possibly the most aggressive, even brutal performance of a work I have ever heard him give.

But Mehta has accomplished something for which he tends to receive merely offhand credit: the remaking of the Philharmonic into a consistently world-class ensemble. And he has done this in one of New York's greatest liabilities, the acoustically unfriendly Avery Fisher Hall. Since the gutting and refitting of the hall, doing anything visible to try to deal with the problems has been forbidden, because that would amount to a public admission that the redo was faulty. It was a terrible burden to place on a music director, and Mehta has risen to the challenge laudably. There have been times in the past few years when the Philharmonic, on an ordinary subscription concert, played with the richness and sumptuousness of tone expected of a major ensemble visiting with its best-rehearsed programs, and for this Mehta deserves all praise.

Guest conductors can be grateful to Mehta, too, for they now have a great instrument at their disposal. This was demonstrated most impressively when the usually faceless Andrew Davis offered a magnificent Strauss ``Alpine Symphony'' - setting some brisk tempos that the Philharmonic negotiated with astonishing grace.

And Mehta himself can still turn on the thrills, as with the opening program of the season - an all-Bernstein affair that began with a rousing, thrilling ``Chichester Psalms'' and concluded with a heartfelt, dramatic account of the often overblown Symphony No. 3, ``Kaddish.'' Most recently, a performance of Mendelssohn's Third Symphony, ``Scottish,'' was sensitive, lovely of tone, and pliant of gesture.

To this observer, leaving the orchestra may be the best thing that could happen to Mehta. He has been too long away from doing opera in any concentrated fashion, and this has not been to his advantage. With this change, he should be free to guest-conduct in all the major houses (how welcome he'll be at the Metropolitan Opera!), as well as continuing his commitment to the Israel Philharmonic, of which he is music-director-for-life.

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