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Ionarts-at-Large: Mahler With Mehta and Angel Blue

“Angel Blue”, it turns out, is not the name of a stripper. The lady in question is a Miss Southern California (& Miss California 1st runner up, 2006) and—more surprising and more significantly—the soprano of this  Thursday (February 21st) evening’s Mahler Symphony No.2 with the Munich Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. The gorgeous Plácido Domingo victim protégé did well, with her sweet, heavy timbre and rather heavy (a little too heavy) vibrato. With Mihoko Fujimura she had a veteran mezzo at her side who unassumingly outshone her. It has been a while since I last heard Fujimura (in 2008 as Kundry both in Vienna and Bayreuth), where I found her singing-acting truly outstanding. But even just singing, her Urlicht and the soli in the Resurrection finale, were beautiful, unforced, and unmannered, with enormous presence and touching immediacy. The Philharmonic Chorus had a fine hour, too, in this third of three performances, especially the hushed first entry, where only one or two growling basses stuck out from a crepuscular whole, tender.

Zubin Mehta of course has given Mahler fans one of the finest recordings of the Second Symphony in the catalog. They year was 1975, and young Zubin was a firebrand of unusual background who made his name in conservative Vienna blowing away cobwebs and setting the classical music world aflame: The Dudamel of his time, if you wish: dashing, but with rather sexier hair than the Dude’s frizz-mop. Mehta has settled down a bit since, and his performances appear more on the routine, pretty, bland side, not daring or exciting. He’ll turn in a mean Mahler, though, on a good day (as on December 2008, Bavarian State Orchestra), and still very decent Mahler when things are a little awry (as on September 2010, MPhil).

As if to contradict the unkind stereotype I just tried laid out, Mehta opened the first movement with electric, detailed low strings and took a real bite out of a first movement. Only timid intervention from the horns protected it from accusations of perfectionism. Mehta led with clear economic gestures and his focus on real pianissimos nearly forced the cough-happy audience into silence. There was a sense of deliberation in all movements, but not always the tenaciousness of the first: Mehta didn’t take the audience by the lapel through the surges and lulls of the Symphony, he invited it to come along if it felt like it. If Mehta—presumably—was following a long line; I couldn’t always detect it, no doubt due to a shortcoming entirely of my own, and certainly to my own detriment. Still: the last movement of the glorious Second Symphony shouldn’t feel like a succession of “get-there-already” moments, merely dotted with ingenious moments. Came the rousing finale, though, I was happily on board again. Any lingering disgruntlement is Mehta’s fault for having set the standard so high himself.