From India to Israel, Making Beautiful Music

Zubin Mehta discusses Wagner, Mahler and the evolution of the Jewish state in the half-century since he adopted it.

For the first few minutes of our meeting, Zubin Mehta is on his cellphone with an old friend (who, it turns out, is a grandson of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan). The friend, like Mr. Mehta, is an Indian Zoroastrian—or Parsi—and the two are making plans for dinner after the maestro and his Israel Philharmonic Orchestra finish their performance that night at Carnegie Hall. They speak in Gujarati, the adoptive language of the Parsis, who fled persecution in newly Islamized Persia in the ninth century and took shelter in western India.

Article By Tunku Varadarajan

After he’s sorted out dinner, Mr. Mehta turns to me, mildly irritated. “New York is surprising. The restaurants all close at 10:30 p.m.,” he says. The night before, he had wanted an 11 p.m. table at a favorite spot, “but they said, ‘We cannot serve you that late, we are unionized.’ ” Tonight he is going to an Indian restaurant of repute that is happy to accommodate a late-dining celebrity. “It’s good food,” he tells me, adding in a very Indian touch: “Give them our name if you go. Then they’ll pay more attention.”

Mr. Mehta is the musical director of the Israel Philharmonic, an orchestra he has worked with and loved for more than 50 years, and with which he is touring the U.S., possibly for the last time. At 81, he’s still a maestro with more raw oomph than anyone else waving a baton. He’s also exactly as old as his orchestra, which was founded in 1936 by Bronislaw Huberman, a Polish violinist who made it his mission to find dignified work in Palestine for Jewish musicians forced from their jobs by the Nazis.

For a foreign, non-Jewish man, Mr. Mehta’s association with Israel is remarkable for its longevity and passion. Yet its beginnings were refreshingly humdrum. “It started by chance,” Mr. Mehta says. “A great conductor, Eugene Ormandy, fell ill and couldn’t do a series of concerts with the Israel Philharmonic in 1961. I was a jobless conductor in Vienna, with my two children, and they called me to cover as substitute. They sent me two tickets, for my wife and myself.”

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Illustration: Terry Shoffner

He recalls the contract as grueling—about 15 concerts in a short span—but there was “an immediate good feeling between me and the orchestra. We hit it off, musically and spiritually. And I felt very at home in Israel, because it’s somewhat like our place, somewhat like India.” I press him to elaborate. “Their temperament is very much like India,” he says. “They all talk at the same time. They’re very opinionated, very argumentative, very hospitable.”

Mr. Mehta doesn’t say so, but when he signed on full-time in 1969, he quickly became a sort of popular hero, an outsider who had embraced Israel in a time of national hardship and international ostracism. He became friendly with Israeli founder and former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Another friend was Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek: “He was Viennese, and I’m half-Viennese because of my musical culture—I speak the Viennese dialect—so we became very close,” Mr. Mehta says. As for Ben-Gurion, he “didn’t love music so much, but he was a scholar of oriental religions. He told me things about Zoroastrianism that I didn’t even know. You know, we modern Parsis, we don’t know too much. We even pray in a language we don’t understand”—a reference to Avestan, the ancient Iranian language now used only in Zoroastrian scriptures.

Besides being impressed with Ben-Gurion’s erudition, Mr. Mehta was struck by “how very depressed he was” that India’s government had condemned Israel for the Six Day War in 1967. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had visited Cairo in solidarity with Israel’s enemies just four months after hostilities ceased. Mr. Mehta says Ben-Gurion “said to me, ‘We Israelis—and I particularly—worship Mahatma Gandhi. He managed to get rid of the British without spilling blood and we, in our small little country, had to kill and shoot them.’ ” Ben-Gurion couldn’t understand how the Mahatma’s country had become hostile to Israel. “And to this day, I don’t know either,” Mr. Mehta says. “What did India have to do with the Six Day War? Israel didn’t start it!”

Mr. Mehta still has Indian citizenship and is delighted that India and Israel now enjoy close relations, having established full diplomatic ties in 1992. I ask how it felt to be in the vanguard of this rapprochement. “Well,” he says, “I was in a way a substitute ambassador. In 1994, I took the Israel Philharmonic to Bombay and Delhi, and they played free of charge. Itzhak Perlman, the great violinist, didn’t take a fee. So I couldn’t be happier.”

Has Israel changed over the many years Mr. Mehta has known it? The maestro grows somber, and—in a faithful reflection of the way so many Israelis are themselves—quite critical. “Oh yes, I’m afraid,” he says, “and not for the better. This obsession with building settlements in land that really doesn’t belong to them—that’s where the argument is.” It’s a “great tragedy,” he adds, “that Sharon isn’t there anymore.” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke in 2006 and died eight years later. “He used to be very militant, and then completely changed. He would not have subsidized these settlements to the extent that is currently happening.”

Mr. Mehta is known in Israel for his vigorous opposition to the settlements. He describes to me a recent visit to the Palestinian city of Ramallah, where he is involved in teaching Western classical music to Arab children. “The houses there all have black cisterns for water,” he says. “Israel doesn’t supply them enough water, so they wait for the rainy season, which is brief. And across the hill there’s a settlement, and you see the flowers growing there in their gardens. It’s that close. So, I see the rage that goes on in the hearts of the Palestinian people, that ‘we have no water, and they’re planting flowers.’ ”

Israel is a knotty place, and I cannot resist asking about Richard Wagner, whose music is taboo there. When will the Israeli attitude toward Wagner change? Mr. Mehta winces slightly. “Well, there’s no ‘attitude,’ ” he says. “There’s a tradition—which I disagree with—of not playing Wagner because he was a confirmed anti-Semite.” He notes that such noxious views weren’t rare in 19th-century Europe. But Mr. Mehta accepts that Wagner was a special case: “He was outspokenly anti-Semitic, and then the Nazis used his music to their own purpose. Every time they won a battle, they played Wagner, and the concentration camps blared his music also. People from the camps are still alive. They don’t want to listen to it.”

Mr. Mehta was the first conductor to perform Wagner in Israel, as an encore to a 1981 concert. A vigorous controversy ensued, and, although Mr. Mehta says he has no regrets, he has not repeated the performance. Still, the maestro believes it is time to end the taboo. “I’d have agreed in the first years of Israel,” he says, “but a lot of time has passed since 1945, a long time. And Wagner is missing in the education of the musicians of Israel.” In any case, he adds, “we play the music of all his musical ‘grandchildren,’ such as Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Bruckner. They all come from Wagner. He was the Queen Victoria of music in the middle of the 19th century. So, I think it’s time to play him. I’m retiring in two years, so I would hope to play him. But if I can’t, I hope my successor will.”

The Israel Philharmonic has evolved along with the country. When Mr. Mehta first arrived, it was an orchestra of very uneven quality. “It was still mostly the orchestra that Huberman had put together,” he says. “The strings played beautifully, because they were from Vienna and Poland. But the brass and woodwind”—here, a pause in search of euphemism—“was not so good.” Jewish émigrés from Russia in the 1970s and ’80s brought a new excellence. “Thank God for the Russians!” Mr. Mehta says. “But we never hired them because they spoke Russian and carried a violin. They were all chosen after blind auditions from behind a screen.”

Those Russians have all retired; they came to Israel in their 30s and 40s. Today’s orchestra is predominantly Israeli. “We have,” Mr. Mehta boasts, “probably one of the best woodwind sections today, anywhere. And the brass section is magnificent. All of that never used to be the case when I first joined.”

Mr. Mehta’s accent is a peculiar blend of Mumbai and Middle Europe, and his own tale is as exotic as the stories of some of the orchestra’s musicians. His father, Mehli Mehta, started the Bombay Symphony Orchestra in 1934, with “professional musicians from Goa, Parsi amateurs, winds from the navy band, and Jewish refugees playing strings.” Despite his father’s best efforts, the results were never entirely harmonious, and it wasn’t until 18-year-old Zubin went to Vienna for his education that he realized how heavenly classical music could be. “It was as if my ears had been unblocked by this audio explosion,” he says. “Ever since then, I’ve always wanted the Viennese sound—warm, not forced. Always supple, never an ugly note.”

I ask him about the work he will be conducting at Carnegie Hall five hours after our interview—Mahler’s Third Symphony—and can see his personal copy of the score in a corner of the room, bound in elegant tan leather. A spell seems to fall over Mr. Mehta as he discusses the symphony in a manner so amorous that I can almost hear the music in his voice.

“It’s my favorite Mahler symphony,” he says. “It’s all dedicated to nature.” He describes it movement by movement, pausing to dwell on the fourth, which was inspired by “Zarathustra’s Roundelay,” a poem in Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” Mr. Mehta pronounces the name “Zarathustra”—the founder of the Zoroastrian religion—with an almost hushed reverence. “It is an ideological poem,” he says, “about night, and the future. ‘O Mensch! Gib acht!’ ”—Oh Man, take heed!

The fifth and penultimate movement is “almost a Christmas song, although Mahler was not Christian. He was converted later on.” Here Mr. Mehta pauses, out of breath, and I hand him a bottle of water that had been sitting beyond his reach. He drinks, and beams, and says: “The last movement, which is about 25 minutes, is dedicated to love, and it just breaks your heart. It is one single melody from beginning to end. It’s like silk and music and thread.”

We are quiet together after this for almost a full minute, when Mr. Mehta sits up with a start, as if a bee has stung his leg. “Aiii, yaaiii, yaaiii,” he says, looking at his watch, and then at me in some amount of panic. Have we, I ask, gone on too long? “I phoned my friend,” he replies, “But I forgot to call my wife.” He snatches at his phone and calls her, only to get her voice mail.

Obviously relieved, he leaves her a message—soothing, apologetic, uxorious—before shaking my hand with a maestro’s flourish.

Mr. Varadarajan is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Appeared in the November 11, 2017, print edition.