Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

There's hardly a thing more flattering for a junior conductor of Mahler's gargantuan - and gorgeous - 5th symphony than for Leonard Bernstein to spend his evening off listening to you performing it.

And that's what happened to Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic Tuesday night at Kennedy Center.

Mehta inaugurated the American tour of Israel's distinguished orchestra celebrating the nation's 30th anniversary - a tour in which he will share the podium with Bernstein. Mehta took on a Mahler symphony as closely identified with Bernstein as any work except those written by the New York Philharmonic's conductor emeritus himself.

The ironies only began there.For Mehta will conduct his first concert tonight as the new music director of the New York Philharmonic, following in the footsteps of Bernstein, Bruno Walter, Arturo Toscanini - and Gustav Mahler himself.

It will be a return to the distinguished ensemble that Mehta, who is now in his early 40s, once served as an assistant to Bernstein. That was during the period when Bernstein was almost single-handedly raising Mahler's works to their present preeminent position in the repertory.

As to the interpretation itself, one hardly demeans it to say, first, that it was very similar to Bernstein's and, second, that really exciting as it was it was not quite what Bernstein - and only Bernstein - seems to be able to get from the 5th in terms of [WORD ILLEGIBLE] virtuosity and lyricism. One night only mention Bernstein's performance of the symphony's slow movement at Robert F. Kennedy's funeral. It is not just sentimentality, but instead one of the most searing elegies in either or verse.

Other places where Tuesday's performance did not quite measure up to the Bernstein model included the whirlwind finales of the scherao and of the rondo. And the weakness may have been as much the inability of the Israeli orchestra to match in sheer lungpower and precision the New York Philharmonic, with which Bernstein has recorded and repeatedly performed the work. But also, one would argue, there was not quite the delicate balance between warmth, irony and acidity that is Bernstein's.

Watching Bernstein (in a box on the left side of the Concert Hall) was almost fascinating as listening to Mehta. Much of the time Bernstein was leaning forward with his head nestled in his hands on the maroon velvet railing. He seemed totally absorbed.

It was a very long program, and one might complain about the 2 1/2 hours except that if anything had been cut out it would have been the Beethoven Third concerto, with Daniel Bareboim at the keyboard.

Bareboim has almost too much talent for his own good. We hear of him mostly as a conductor these days. And one tends to forget the aristocratic phrasing and attention to nuance that make him almost the ideal pianist for a neo-Mozartian piece like this.