| In better surroundings
For most lovers of Western classical music ' and I dare say for lovers of Indian classical music as well ' there is something bizarre and disconcerting about going to listen to a concert in a stadium. But that was what was imposed on those music lovers ' including Ravi Shankar ' who chose to listen to Zubin Mehta conducting the Bavarian State Orchestra in New Delhi on December 28.
Playing at an indoor stadium which seats 20,000 meant that the orchestra was forced to use microphones, something it ' or any halfway decent orchestra ' would never do in a concert hall. The stadium, the mikes, the huge screens that were put up ' all created the ambience of a pop concert.
Add to this the pervasive VIP culture of Delhi. Hoi polloi who managed to get invitations (entry was by invitation only) sat high up on the stadium; for them the screens must have been a blessing even though the sound echoed. In front of the stage, there were two enclosures at ground level. One was for VIPs and the other, fenced off, for VVIPs. The invitations insisted that everyone had to be seated by 6 pm for a concert that was to begin at 7. That one-hour wait was an education to observers of Delhi's 'culture'. People went up to the security officers manning the fence that separated the VIPs from the even more important and tried to explain to them why they should be in the VVIP enclosure. It was hardly an edifying sight to see the great and the good of the capital making themselves look ridiculous. It must be said to the credit of the security personnel that hardly anybody succeeded in persuading them, not for want of trying though.
The concert began 20 minutes late with the orchestra playing the Indian and German national anthems. It is difficult to comprehend why the national anthems had to be played. In a concert in London, New York, Paris or Berlin would an orchestra strike up the national anthem' In India everything has to be 'national'.
The rituals over, Zubin Mehta presented music that made most people forget the various negative features of the way the event had been organized.
Zubin Mehta, who is now 69 years old, has perhaps just missed making it to the high table of 20th century conductors. But anybody who has heard the live recording (1982) of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante (K.364) with Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with Itzhak Perlman on the violin and Pinchas Zukerman on the viola, knows that Zubin Mehta is capable of superlative music making.
In Delhi, under Zubin Mehta's baton, the Bavarian State Orchestra played the overture from Verdi's The Force of Destiny, Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Zubin Mehta's maturity as a conductor was manifest in the last two pieces.
During the Verdi overture, it was obvious that the orchestra was adjusting itself to an utterly alien environment for music ' the microphones, the vastness of the stadium and acoustics that were absent. It could not have been an easy adaptation for the orchestra and the conductor. But their professionalism was evident from the speed with which they made the necessary changes and by the time they played Schubert's Symphony No 8 (wrongly called Symphony No 7 in the programme notes that were distributed in the concert), it was evident that the Bavarian State Orchestra had come into its own.
Schubert's Unfinished, composed in 1822 when he was only 25 years old, is considered to be architecturally perfect despite its 'unfinished' state. He made sketches for its completion but never did complete it, perhaps because it did not need to be completed. The two movements as they stand are a glorious gift which music lovers have accepted with an overwhelming humility. The symphony, full of the light and the dark, is the high-watermark of Schubert's rich romanticism. Zubin Mehta imaginatively captured the essence of the symphony in its very opening ' the cellos and double basses were resonant and the interplay between the peace and stress that marks this movement and the piece was apparent. Mehta carried forward the tension into the second movement and expressed Schubert's lyricism as well as the inner vehemence of the composition. The woodwind and the horns played superbly. It was a wonderful performance of a symphony, which, because of its very nature, is always a challenge to a conductor. How does one convey a sense of completeness to a composition that was unfinished' Zubin Mehta conveyed the mystery and the magic of this piece of music.
The first notes of Beethoven's Fifth have probably become the most popular bit of Western classical music. During the Second World War, thanks to the BBC, it became the identifying call for all resisters of fascism across Europe. Beethoven himself is supposed to have said that the opening of the Fifth represented for him the knocking of Fate at the door. He also remarked that the little pattern of notes had first occurred to him from a yellow-hammer's song which he had heard while walking in the Prater-park in Vienna. But beyond this anxiety of influence, this piece of music, epitomizing as it does Beethoven's great and heroic middle period, has come to acquire, in the words of Maynard Solomon, the biographer of Beethoven, the status of 'a quintessential Beethoven symphony'.
It is thus never an easy piece to conduct since there are always a priori expectations. Zubin Mehta and his orchestra were not daunted by the symphony and its reputation. The conductor evoked unforgettable sounds from the wind section. The oboe cadenza in the first movement singing its way into the grand theme made the evening memorable. Mehta, perhaps purposely as a concession to the location of the concert, did not attempt to make too many interpretative points but this did not take away from the intensity of music making. He expressed the conflict inherent in the music. The symphony is unique in that Beethoven brings to it three trombones, a piccolo and a contra-bassoon. These instruments, much like the chorus and the percussion in the Ninth Symphony, remain silent for three whole movements and then suddenly join in the splendour and the pomp of the memorable finale. Zubin Mehta's players did not let him down as he grappled with one of the greatest pieces of music in the most unsuitable of surroundings.
Across many events of 2005, my enduring image of the year gone by will be of Zubin Mehta, baton in the right hand, and left hand raised to summon the wind section of the Bavarian State Orchestra into the sublime second movement of Beethoven's Fifth.