An interview by Malavika Sangghvi
On the eve of his concert in Mumbai and the release of his autobiography The Score Of My Life, classical music maestro Zubin Mehta talks to Malavika Sangghvi about what the city was like when he was growing up here
In India, there is a growing tendency to look upon Western cuture as a threat. In this climate, where do your efforts to promote Western classical music fit in?
I was not aware of this climate. But in any case, Indian culture — music, dance, sculpture — is so rich and abundant that a few Western classical concerts are certainly not going to make a dent in it! The Chinese, Koreans or Japanese don’t have half the cultural riches that Indians have and yet they are not worried about being swamped! An average Chinese is not as steeped in his music as an Indian is. I don’t think there is any cause for concern.
Your trip will coincide with the release of your autobiography The Score Of My life published in India by Roli books. Tell us why you chose to pen an autobiography?
Well, it was expected of me at the end of my 8-year tenure as music director of the Bavarian State Opera. I narrated it in German to Renate Grafin Matuschka. I thought it would be a summation of my career. Then it was translated into Italian, German and Hebrew. For the Indian version, I have brought it up-to-date and added a lot more about India.
What have been the successes of the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation so far?
Well we have a couple of hundred children enrolled, they come in to study music, and we try and awaken their intereests and nurture their talents. They listen to concerts with great musicians such as pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim and violinist Pinchas Zukerman who are coming to perform. All our rehearsals are open to the public and we hope that this exposure to soe of the world’s greatest talents will inspire them too.
It’s supposed to be a brutally honest no-holds-barred exposé of your life. Do you regret being so honest?
I never set out to do that. It evolved that way because it would have been hypocritical to be dishonest. I wrote it mainly so that young musicians could learn from my experiences and profit from my advice. I’ve written about the mistakes I have made in my life — my regrets.
What have some of your regrets been?
The crux of the book is my life as a musician, not my personal life. A conductor has also to be a father, confessor, something like a psychologist. I regret not treating a colleague or a member of the orchestra better when I was younger…
When you look back what is the achievement you are most proud of?
Well I have conducted 3,000 concerts with the Israel Philharmonic, 1,000 with the New York Philharmonic. That in itself is an achievement. Each concert is like a little brick in the wall, and when you multiply it…
In your entire career, you have met some of the world’s greatest musicians, statesmen and creative minds, who has impressed you the most?
Can’t really say, I met Nehru when he’d come to the UN when I was a young man in New York. I remember being very impressed with him. I was a friend of his nephew Ajit Hutheesingh, so I saw him in a family situation.
I heard you want to conduct an orchestra in Kashmir.
Yes most definitely. Music brings people together; I like to help people in crisis. I have played in Bosnia and in Palestine. I want Hindus and Muslims to sit together and listen to music. I feel it will do a lot of good. And not only Western Classical, there is so much appreciation of great Hindustani classical music in the North. Why don’t musicians think of playing music there?
You are coming at a time when a few Commonwealth nations have issued a advisory against travelling to India — in the light of this, are your concerts here brave or foolhardy?
I wasn’t aware of the travel advisory. But look, let’s not sensationalise things: Mumbai hasn’t become a terror centre. We are all looking forward to the concerts — it’s like a mini festival of great artists celebrating great music and hopefully, we’ll raise some money too.
What do you love about Mumbai, the city of your birth — and what do you hate about it?
I spent the first 18 years of my life in Mumbai, and they were very happy years. I had a wonderful education at St Mary’s. With Jesuit priests, I made great friends. I treasure those years.
But it brings tears to my eyes when I see what has become of Mumbai physically, architecturally. When I was growing up, Mumbai was an exemplary town architecturally — one of the finest. Today, they are tearing down the old bungalows at Cuffe Parade and selling them off to speculators who build ugly highrises! Opposite my childhood home, incidentally one of the last few bungalows at Cuffe Parade, they should never have allowed the fishing village to desecrate the area — at least if it was a romantic fishing village… They should never have allowed that road to be changed. But Mumbai is not the only city in the world where these things happen. It’s an island city and when I was growing up, there were 22-and-a-half million people. Today there are 16, 17 million. For instance, I am not happy to hear it houses the Dharavi slum with its squalor…
Any views on the Parsi Panchayat elections? For the first time, what used to be the reticent community is having a headline-grabbing election.
I speak to my Parsi friends in Mumbai every day and they’ve not told me about this??! We were always a minority community, especially in India with its great numbers. But the fact that we are now facing extinction because of regressive and very radical elements in the community who oppose conversion and intermarriage is a great pity.
From the Parsi Panchayat election to the US presidential ones — your views.We need an intellectual in the White House. I am not an American citizen; I still own an Indian passport so I don’t vote, I only live there. I find Obama very enigmatic; he speaks prolifically and very charismatically. How he will fare if he wins we will have to see, but with events of the last two weeks, it looks more likely that he will.
Is it true that you have a photographic memory and don’t need to have the music score in front of you when you’re conducting?
Yes. When you study the music as profoundly and as analytically as I have done, you don’t need the score. But there’s no hard-and-fast rule. When I conduct operas, I refer to the score.
At 72 are you worried about a slowing down of your faculties?
No, my father conducted till he was in is 90s. I come from a family that goes on and on. In fact it was only when he stopped working that his health failed.
In your book you say that 65 as a retirement age for musicians is unfair.
With the excellence of health and nutrition and protein-enriched diets, people at 65 are not old!
And do you think of retiring?
I don’t even know how to spell the word!