Kennedy Center Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman has declared that Zubin Mehta’s “profound artistry and devotion to music make him a world treasure.” No doubt that’s why he’ll be celebrated as one of five 2006 Kennedy Center Honors winners this weekend at the 29th annual gala celebration of these awards.
But Mr. Schwarzman’s observation is also literally true. The fabled conductor, one of his generation’s greatest interpreters of the Western classical canon, was born in India, rose to fame in England and America, and is regarded as a national treasure in Israel.
A Parsee who can trace his lineage back to ancient Persia, Mr. Mehta was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India in 1936 during a time of great upheaval on the Indian subcontinent as it lurched toward democracy and the creation of Pakistan. His early music education was undertaken by his father, Mehli Mehta, a violinist who was also one of the co-founders of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra.
Young Zubin, however, had other ideas, and set his cap on a career in medicine. But after barely a year of medical training, he changed his mind again and began his study of music and conducting at the Vienna Music Academy at age 18. Fellow students at that time included Claudio Abbado and Daniel Barenboim, both of whom would also go on to achieve prominence in the classical arena, the former as a conductor, the latter as both a conductor and a pianist.
At age 22, Mr. Mehta made his conducting debut in Vienna and also won the prestigious International Conducting Competition in Liverpool, England, which resulted in his appointment as assistant conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
Having begun his musical career in India and having made a name for himself in Europe by the ripe old age of 24, Mr. Mehta hopped continents again, becoming music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in 1960, a post he held until 1967. While there, he also became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1962-78), which catapulted him to fame in this country. He still calls that city home.
It was during this time that Mr. Mehta began to develop his long, affectionate relationship with the Israeli music community. He was appointed music adviser by the Israel Philharmonic in 1969 and became the orchestra’s music director in 1977. He was elevated to the philharmonic’s music director for life in 1981.
Upon leaving the L.A. Philharmonic, Mr. Mehta was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic (1978-91), where his dramatic conducting style and emphasis on the romantic repertoire made him quite popular, as evidenced by his 13-year tenure — the longest in the history of an orchestra legendary for the crankiness of its musicians.
His interpretations of Bruckner and Mahler while at the helm in New York came to be regarded by many as definitive, and his mastery of the music of Richard Strauss rivals that of the late George Szell, who led the Cleveland Orchestra for many years.
As his career matured, Mr. Mehta broadened his reach into opera and choral music and even into the popular repertoire. While he had actually conducted his first opera during his stay in Montreal, he began conducting opera in earnest in Italy in 1990. Later that year, he made history conducting the very first of the Three Tenor megaconcerts in Rome. He was later to rejoin tenors Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti — the latter two of whom are recent Kennedy Center honorees — conducting another megaconcert at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in 1994.
It was around this time that Mr. Mehta also began to be known for his humanitarian efforts, using music not only as a means of fundraising for worthy causes but also as a way to communicate solidarity and forgiveness. In 1994, he presented Mozart’s Requiem in what was becoming the wreckage of Yugoslavia, conducting the work amid the ruins of Sarajevo’s National Library to raise funds — and awareness — on behalf of past and current victims of that region’s political violence.
Later, in 1999, he conducted a famous concert near Buchenwald, in which the Israel Philharmonic and the Bavarian State Orchestra combined in a memorable performance of Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony.
Having recently concluded an eight-year stint as general music director of the Bavarian State Opera, Mr. Mehta, now 70, has trimmed back somewhat on his hyperactive career. Nonetheless, he has become one of the regular conductors at the spectacular new Valencia opera house, the Palau de les Arts, where he has shared duties with Lorin Maazel and Placido Domingo since 2005.