The New York Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta inaugurated their national tour here last night with one of the grander evenings that Wolf Trap has had in quite a while.
The performances of Brahms' Third Symphony and Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" were richly satisfying and the weather was -- well, you probably know. The lucky ones, and the majority, too, were those on the lawn with their tweeds, their sweaters and their blankets.
The woman in the next seat summed up the Brahms exactly right when she observed, "I loved it for its restraint." It is a wonderfully flowing work that some conductors allow to be ruined as they direct the orchestra to blast away. If anything, Mehta understated the dynamics and concentrated instead on glowing textures and balances.
The melodic rhetoric was not understated; it was allowed to be heightened. Long melodies, and the lyric counter-melodies that dot the work, soared away. It was non-bombastic romanticism, which is heard less these days than before.
Mehta's rhythm maintained a steady pulse throughout the give and take. Only once, to this listener, did he go too far and that was, of all places, at the end of the very first full phrase, and its repeat, when his slowing down of the descending high notes seemed fussy.
"The Rite," to put it mildly, was a formidable foil to the tender beauties of the Brahms; it is music of grimness, violence and death. Stravinsky composed it, of course, as a ballet, which some conductors forget in their virtuoso frenzies. Mehta conducted it more as theatrical, or story, dance than as cerebral dance. The dynamics were sharp, as were tempo and mood contrasts. The engulfing climaxes were built with meticulous care and finally brought the audience to a standing ovation.
The Philharmonic was playing with more concentration on the music's content than on every last point of split-second detail. Perhaps too much of the latter would be lost anyway in so acoustically diffuse an arena as Wolf Trap.
But it is also a tradition of the orchestra, now about to reach its 139th birthday, that the music comes first -- and a proud tradition it is.