Classically, Zubin

After a recent performance at Carnegie Hall, New York, Zubin Mehta speaks about his links with Israel and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Article by Vibhuti Patel | The Hindu

27SM_ZUBIN_3_jpg_1875544f ‘Political Views Test the Harmony’, punned the New York Times’ headline in a  recent Arts-section lead story that ran — with the subhead ‘Conductor of Israel Philharmonic (Orchestra) Speaks His Mind on the Middle East’ — over a frowning photo of a pained-looking Zubin Mehta, eyes closed, baton raised. At 77, Mumbai-born, Vienna-trained Mehta leads the orchestra that is Israel’s premier cultural ambassador.

Hosted by the American Friends of Israel to play at Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall, Mehta gave a lengthy interview to the NYT in which he said, “I speak openly about a country that I see, from my private musician’s perspective, as going in the wrong direction (with) the settlements… They know I’m a friend and being in a democracy, I express my opinions freely.” Courageous words uttered publicly in a city whose powerful Zionist lobby rules its impressive cultural and intellectual worlds; tolerated because Mehta has proven his solidarity with Israel repeatedly. During the Gulf War, he played through the fall of Scud missiles while the audience donned gas masks — and stayed to listen. He played when Hezbollah’s rockets fell and, another time, rescheduled concerts so audiences could get home before the curfew.

The maestro’s association with the IPO harks back to when he was invited, at 25, to substitute for an indisposed conductor. He had never heard of the orchestra founded 25 years earlier, as the ‘Palestine Orchestra’, for talented Jewish musicians who were banned from performing in pre-Nazi Europe. At its inaugural concert in 1936, the legendary Arturo Toscanini, then the highest-paid conductor in the U.S. and a staunchly anti-fascist non-Jew, had volunteered to conduct the opera gratis. Later, the IPO named Mehta its Music Director and, in 1981, Music Director for Life. “That title’s just a handshake, there’s no contract,” Mehta explains. “I’ll stay as long as the players want me.”

Not just the players but all of Israel seems to want Mehta, an unlikely national hero as a Parsi who, despite a cosmopolitan life spent abroad, remains Indian at heart. (Moved, for instance, by hearing of Raj Kapoor’s death before a Moscow concert, Mehta shared the news with the audience and dedicated his performance to the Russians’ beloved superstar.)

As conductor of the redoubtable New York Philharmonic from 1978-1991, Mehta became a celebrity, lionised by the media, darling of socialites. Sexy and glamorous, ‘Zuby baby’ came from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to head the world’s best, most difficult orchestra. He had occasional problems with players and critics though never with audiences who idolised his musicality as much as his dashing stage presence. (Still handsome, Mehta has aged gracefully to embody dignity onstage.) He mentored and promoted young players, took his elite orchestra to Harlem, commissioned Ravi Shankar to compose a sitar concerto that they performed together at the Philharmonic where, on Saturday mornings, he introduced children to classical music. At one such ‘Young People’s Concerts’, he handed over his baton to a 12-year-old to conduct in his place! Visiting Parsis, attending Mehta’s morning rehearsals, would go backstage to be heartily welcomed by “aapro (our own) Zubin” with jolly conversation and gifts of CDs.

When he declined to renew his contract after 13 years, everyone was disappointed. He left Manhattan’s rat race because “spiritually, it’s necessary to have time to study, to rethink.” He wanted to do “more opera, more touring, things out of my routine.” And he did that: He gained popularity with a universal TV audience by conducting the ‘Three Tenors’; now he heads the opera in Florence, Italy, and tours worldwide. Each year, he spent three months with the IPO. “Israel and its people remind me of India; people are always talking, arguing, laughing,” he observes. “The orchestra — the country itself — is like a warm close-knit family. It’s one of my spiritual homes; I’ve grown up with them, I’ve been there since 1961.”

Musically, too, he’s had serious disagreements with Israeli society: his passion for 19 century German composer Richard Wagner is not reciprocated. As Hitler’s favourite, Wagner is loathed in Israel where survivors still bear Auschwitz’s tattoos. “He was 110 per cent anti-Semitic,” Mehta concedes. “But, he’s half my world.” When the IPO played Wagner for an encore at a 1981 concert, Israelis booed and walked out. Mehta has not dared revisit Wagner, an opera lover’s dream. Still, “the relationship with my favourite orchestra is a lasting marriage” based on a shared devotion to music. When Mehta was honoured by Washington’s Kennedy Center, the IPO flew in from Israel to serenade him! On his — and the IPO’s — 70 birthday, they surprised him by playing “Happy Birthday” at their Carnegie Hall gala.

For years, Mehta has made music education a priority. In Mumbai, he honoured his musician-father by establishing the Mehli Mehta Foundation, which trains 300 children in Western classical music. In Tel Aviv, the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music trains Israeli musicians, while his ‘Mifneh’ programme caters to 250 young Arabs in the West Bank that he often visits. “With my Indian passport, I have no problem. The Indian ambassador in Ramallah sends his car.” Mehta’s dream is to find an Israeli-Arab to play in the IPO. “May be,” he muses, “music will help us come together.”

(Sent to us via email by Dolly Dastoor)