The Israel Philaharmonic and Zubin Mehta

The NYTimes carries a piece on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Israel Philaharmonic. Zubin Mehta, the legendary Parsi Conductor is the Director for Life at the IPO.

The current music director, Zubin Mehta, a Zoroastrian from India, is beloved for conducting a concert during the Persian Gulf war of 1991, when Saddam Hussein was lobbing Scud missiles toward Israel; audience members wore gas masks.

Mr. Mehta — now 70, like the orchestra — remembers being jobless in Vienna in 1961, at 25, when he received a puzzling telegram inviting him to direct a concert with the “Pal. Phil. Orchestra.”

“I didn’t know who the orchestra was,” Mr. Mehta said. “I had to ask around.” It seems that the telegraph operator had not updated the name. Mr. Mehta has been with the orchestra almost continuously since then, having become music director for life in 1981.

That year he caused a great local controversy by playing music from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at the end of a concert, breaking the informal ban on the music of that noted anti-Semite that had lasted since Hitler’s rise to power. Mr. Mehta first made a short speech about democracy; two orchestra members were excused from playing. Some in the audience left, and many protested loudly. Ten years later a Wagner program proposed by Mr. Barenboim was postponed and finally aborted.

Wagner aside, Mr. Mehta acknowledges the conservative taste of the audience. In a recent postconcert interview, he conceded that if he had scheduled Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra (Op. 31) after intermission, the hall would have been empty. Still, he gave the audience a quick but charming exposition of the piece before the orchestra played it.

“The population has lived in a state of terror and anxiety for the last 50 years, listening to the news every hour, and they don’t want to come to a concert hall and have to concentrate on contemporary music and pay attention,” Mr. Mehta said. “They want to sit back and listen to their favorites.”

Leon Botstein — the president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and the music director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, which is less celebrated but bolder in its repertory — is gently critical. “This is a tremendously conservative concert culture, a carryover from the Central European audience,” he said. “The Israel Philharmonic is the best example.”

But there has been harsher criticism. Writing in the newspaper Haaretz last month, Noam Ben Ze’ev urged Mr. Mehta to resign, saying that the orchestra “has failed in the genuinely important missions: nurturing Israeli soloists, producing young conductors and in-house composers, introducing a daring new repertoire and recruiting a new young audience.”

Read the entire article here