Of Zubin Mehta, Berlin Musicians and Nature Conservation

Zubin Mehta, a renowned Indian conductor of western classical music — who commutes between the major music centres in Europe, the United States and Israel — remains emotionally attached to the country of his birth, particularly the diversity of its nature.

By By Corina Kolbe | IDN

It was logical therefore that his eyes lit up when he was asked to conduct Europe’s first charity concert in Berlin to promote nature conservation in the threatened north-eastern Himalayan region.

"Everyone should know the incomparable beauty of India’s landscape," said the 74-year-old maestro, who directed the benefit concert on January 16, 2011 in Berlin, to support WWF’s sustainability projects in the Indian states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

WWF (World Wildlife Fund) is a leading global organization dedicated to protecting endangered wildlife and environments.

The concert was a ‘climate initiative’ of the musicians of Berlin’s reputed ‘Staatskapelle’, who have founded the ‘Orchestra of Change’ (‘Orchester des Wandels’) — with another reputed conductor Daniel Barenboim as its patron — and the Foundation ‘NaturTon’ (Nature’s Original Sound).

The ‘Orchestra of Change’ wants music lovers to be environment friendly and hopes that musicians around the world will emulate them. The initiators of the Foundation support CO2 tax on air travel, plead for the use of recycled paper by administrations, favour environmentally safe cleaning of their tail coats, and demand free of charge public transport tickets for concertgoers.

"When they asked me whether I would lead the concert, I agreed happily," said Zubin Mehta who was born into a Parsi family in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1936. "We (Parsis) worship the elements of nature and pray for a clean earth, clean water and clean air. That’s part of our philosophy of life."

Following are excerpts from the interview conducted shortly before the concert and first published in Hamburg-based ‘Zeit Online’. It was conducted in German, a language in which Zubin Mehta is highly proficient — not the least because at the age of 18 he left Mumbai for Vienna where he eventually entered the conducting programme at the Academy for Music.

Q: The benefit concert supports the environmental group WWF’s projects in the eastern Himalayas, because the nature in India is under serious threat. Is that because the emerging economy has undergone such a rapid industrial development?

Mehta: In my view, the problem is rapid population growth. As more and more villages are transformed into cities, more and more forests are disappearing. Unlike China, India is a democratic state, which does not dictate how many children a family should have. For this reason, it will not be possible to halt the demographic development. Besides, though India is a high-tech country, it is plagued by enormous social contradictions. 800 million of the 1.2 billion people in the country can neither read nor write.

Q: As a musician, you speak a universal language. Is this not an ideal condition to sensitize a large number of people also for global concerns such as climate change?

Mehta: Yes. You should never underestimate the power of music; it transcends all frontiers. When I conduct performances with Beethoven’s music to Jewish and Arab audiences in the Middle East, peace pervades concert halls. We artists must do more to ensure that people living in crisis situations find an access to each other through music.

Q: Berlin is witnessing you conduct Beethoven’s ‘Leonore Overture number 4’ as backdrop to a new piece of the modern-day Indian composer Naresh Sohal. You are building a bridge between times and cultures poles apart.

Mehta: You are referring to ‘The Divine Song’, a large piece for narrator and orchestra based on text at the heart of the ‘Bhagavad Gita’, a sacred Hindu scripture. The text is very descriptive; it is recited by Swiss film and stage actor Stefan Kurt in German. It is a dialogue between Arjuna, the great warrior of the Indian epic ‘Mahabharata’, and Krishna, the god of culture. In this case, Arjuna is the pacifist. Krishna argues, however, that enemies must be destroyed. This is also a very topical issue of our times. In addition, I am presenting the ‘Eroica’ by Beethoven, who initially celebrated Napoleon as a hero and then turned away from him when he crowned himself Emperor and betrayed the ideals of the revolution.

Q: What kind of audiences does the Western classical music draw in India?

Mehta: Lots of people attend such concerts in Bombay, where my father founded the first symphony orchestra in the country in 1935. About 18 million people live in Bombay, of which maybe 10,000 are interested in Western music. Most of the people love Indian music. Western music is a borrowed culture. I wish the people knew both well.

Q: The ‘Mehli Mehta Music Foundation’ in Mumbai, named after your father, offers an educational programme aimed at making young people familiar with the Indian and Western classical music.

Mehta: Presently 200 children and adolescents are learning how to play violin and piano. Another 200 are still on the waiting list. At the moment we have neither enough space, nor a sufficient number of teachers. But I hope that we can eventually set up a conservatory.

With the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, I am also trying to introduce Israeli Arabs in the north of the country to music. Members of the orchestra, which I led for many years as music director teach more than 250 young Arabs and also train teachers in Shwaram and Nazareth; and I have a dream that at some point in time Israeli Arabs will be playing along with others in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, perhaps already in the next five or six years.

Q: Your colleague and long-time friend Daniel Barenboim is committed to his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra for international understanding in the Middle East.

Mehta: Daniel performs with the orchestra everywhere in the world. He has created the only forum which brings together Arabs and Jews in complete harmony. With the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, I performed last month (December 2010) for the first time in a Muslim country — in Azerbaijan. In future, I would like to visit other Muslim countries along with musicians. However, I think the Israeli government would do well to change its policy towards the Arabs. I am by no means in agreement with everything that goes on in that country.

I was recently in Zurich with the Orchestra of the ‘Buchmann-Mehta School of Music’, which trains young musicians in Tel Aviv. Next August we want to perform in Brazil together with a youth orchestra from Heliopolis, Sao Paulo’s largest slum. The Favelas are a stronghold of drugs. Initially I needed police protection there. But meanwhile many parents have changed their minds and are sending their children to music lessons. This also indicates what all music can achieve.

Note: The above text is adapted from Zubin Mehta’s answers in German. It was not possible to forward it for the maestro’s approval. But the translator, Jutta Wolf, has taken care to keep the English version as close as possible to the original text. (IDN-InDepthNews/21.01.2011)