Loyalty is a meter of Mehta


July 24, 2008

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Individuals | Music

IT IS not, at first sight, a marriage made in heaven. The conductor is a Parsee Indian, brought up in Bombay, trained in Vienna and living in Los Angeles.

The orchestra is a band of refugees who maintain a pocket of the ultimate in Western culture in the middle of in a war zone. And yet Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra have a relationship that is stronger than many a marriage. He first performed with the orchestra in 1961, when another conductor cancelled at short notice. He was appointed its music adviser in 1969, music director in 1977, and in 1981 Mehta accepted the title of music director for life.

It is a unique position in a business where contracts rarely run for more than five years.

In the world of classical music, successful conductors are the prima donnas of the orchestral world, able to name their price and their terms.

And Mehta is a leading light of this elite cohort: he is “honorary conductor” of a host of mighty orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera. He conducted the first Three Tenors concerts with Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo on the eve of the 1990 World Cup of soccer. He even has a character from the The Muppet Show, Zubin Beckmesser, named after him.

The boy from Bombay began his starry career on a high and went up from there. He cut his conducting teeth on the Liverpool Philharmonic, progressed to the Montreal Symphony and then the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the astonishingly young age of 24, and succeeded Leonard Bernstein 15 years later at the New York Philharmonic's helm, where he was to stay until 1991. His talent and youthful charm was a refreshing change from the dour and god-like authority of conducting legends the likes of Furtwangler, Beecham and Karajan. He called orchestral musicians by their first names, he cracked jokes and made mistakes, and he reinvigorated orchestras and audiences with his turbo-charged performances.

But for all his flamboyance and charisma, Mehta has shown a remarkable constancy and loyalty to his chosen orchestras. He refers to the Los Angeles Philharmonic as his alma mater, and still conducts there for a couple of weeks a year. He was the longest-serving music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1978-1991. And his relationship with the Israel Philharmonic is a lifetime commitment.

“It's not a contract. It's more of an honour,” Mehta says, on the phone from Tel Aviv. “Both sides can sever this relationship whenever they want. But it is an unusual honour because it's not a board of directors who gave it to me. It was the musicians themselves. So I'm very proud of that.”

The Israel Philharmonic was founded in 1936, the year of Mehta's birth. Originally known as the Palestine Orchestra, it was founded by the Polish violinist Bronislaw Hubertin. He persuaded many Jewish musicians, who were being fired from orchestras around Europe, to relocate to Palestine. The first concert took place in Tel Aviv on December 26, 1936, under the baton of Arturo Toscanini.

As many commentators have observed, this historic ensemble carries a lot of political baggage, but orchestra and conductor wear it lightly. In times of war the band plays on, to full houses, and it is rare for Mehta to engage in political discussion (although at times it is unavoidable, such as when he tried to present music by Hitler's favourite composer, Wagner. “They were not ready,” he says.)

For the most part, Mehta prefers to let the music do the talking, and the message is loud and clear. Few could ignore his expression of solidarity with the people of Israel when, at the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1991, he cancelled concerts in New York to fly to Israel, where he conducted sell-out concerts as Scud missiles flew overheard. In 1994 he conducted Mahler's Resurrection Symphony on the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp in Weimar, with musicians from the Bavarian State Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic side-by-side. In 2006 he lead the Israel Philharmonic in an historic concert involving 500 Palestinian and Jewish children, singing together on neutral territory. No wonder he is the recipient of a string of artistic and humanitarian honours, including the United Nations Lifetime Achievement Peace and Tolerance Award.

In Sydney this week, however, it is business as usual; three concerts, of Russian and German repertoire, played by multinational musicians largely chosen by himself. Unlike the Pope, he is not expecting to cause any disruption to the city: “We always travel with a couple of security guards,” he admits, “but they don't get in our way.”

Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic play at the Sydney Opera House on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

This story was found at: SMH