Zubin Mehta: Lightning conductor


November 30, 2005

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At almost 70, the Indian maestro Zubin Mehta is still wowing audiences and dividing critics across the globe. Sholto Byrnes meets him

As I wait outside Zubin Mehta’s office, Sir Peter Jonas, formerly the general director of the ENO and now Mehta’s colleague at the Bavarian State Opera, tells me the maestro can still stand on his head. This is an impressive feat for a man of nearly 70. Life may have slowed down for some of his contemporaries, but not for this conductor.

With his job at the Staatsoper in Munich, the lifetime musical directorship of the Israel Philharmonic, his association with the Florence Opera, a new venture in Valencia, and the occasional visit to London (he will conduct an all-Mozart programme at the Barbican next month), Mehta still has a lot of energy, although he apologises for being sleepy when we meet.

It is not the previous night’s performance of Falstaff that leaves him tired, nor his heavy schedule of meetings. No, it is staying up at night to memorise score after score. But that is the price he must pay for running a house that performs 45 different operas a year – more, he says proudly, than any other in Germany.

From the Sixties to the Eighties, Mehta was the most glamorous and one of the most in-demand conductors in the world. The youngest-ever musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the age of 25, he succeeded Leonard Bernstein (after the unhappy interregnum of Pierre Boulez) at the New York Philhar -monic. “The next Toscanini has been born,” said the great Austrian conductor Josef Krips.

The Indian Parsee was at the centre of a brilliant musical coterie, including Daniel Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman and Isaac Stern, known as “the Kosher Nostra” (the Parsees are sometimes called the “Jews of India” and Mehta formed a close bond with Israel early in his career). He travelled the world and married a movie starlet, performed concerts in the field during the Six Day War, and conducted Also Sprach Zarathustra for Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The New Yorker profiled him; Time put him on the cover.

Yet there is a suggestion, oft aired by British critics, that Mehta never fulfilled his promise. Norman Lebrecht described Mehta as “a genuine talent that has yet to leave a solid mark on the musical map”. “How many of my concerts has he been to?” demands Mehta.

But Mehta also had his problems with US critics. The LA Times’s lead reviewer was a thorn during his tenure on the West Coast. And, in New York, Mehta thinks critics tried to outdo themselves to be rude. “I inherited a good second-rate orchestra,” he says. “I worked very hard, and it started getting better. But the better it got, the worse the reviews.”

The maestro believes that a lot of critics don’t know the scores. He cites a Wagner performance in which the conductor beats a bar’s rest several times. “The next day this critic writes that I held the luftpause – the tiny space between one phrase and the next – too long. The rest is a whole bar of slow six!”

John Willan, a former managing director of the London Philharmonic, has suggested that conductors such as Mehta who are adored by the public would come to England more were they not given bad reviews. A recent London performance of The Rite of Spring was called “humdrum” – odd, given that it was Mehta’s “flashiness” that irritated critics, although this is to misunderstand a conductor who seeks to nurture the richness of the Vienna sound.

Bruno Walter once held sway in Munich, but Mehta’s post at the Munich Opera is not the highest of points from which to enter the home stretch of his career. For Mehta, however, it’s being in his cultural home of Middle Europe that counts. “England is a disaster as far as financial backing is concerned,” he says. The US, he thinks, is going the same way. Italy, too. “The government is cutting money all the time,” he says. “We were told earlier this month to cut ?4m from this season’s budget at the Florence Opera. It’s blasphemous. We are living in very dangerous times.”

In Middle Europe, says Mehta, the subsidy and the audience are still there. “There are three orchestras in Munich, all world-quality, in a city of one million. Yet every hall is full. I did a concert with the Philharmonic, and even at the dress rehearsal not one seat was empty. It’s the same when you go to Prague or Budapest.” Mehta once said that music, to him, meant Austria and Germany. “My repertoire is the Viennese School,” he explains. “Everything else is peripheral.”

Now the home region of Beethoven and Mozart suits him for other reasons. “I was offered the Berlin Opera in 1976,” he says. “I asked Karajan whether I should take it, and he said, ‘Yes, then you can conduct the Berlin Philharmonic as much as you want. We’ll be good neighbours.’ I wasn’t ready, but when the Munich Opera offered me a job in 1996, I’d done Fidelio, The Magic Flute, two cycles of The Ring. So I took it.”

In the Eighties, Mehta also turned down the musical directorships of the London Philharmonic and the Royal Opera House. “I didn’t want to do five months in New York and five in London,” he says. “If I do a job it has to be five months. I don’t want to do less.” Mehta claims that his reputation for jet-setting guest-conducting is unjustified; he prefers to concentrate on his regular orchestras. These include the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics. “I’ve hardly missed a year conducting them since 1961,” he says. If he is unhappy with his career, he doesn’t show it.

“Tomorrow I have Tristan,” he says. “I can’t wait. I tell the musicians, ‘We rehearsed Das Lied von der Erde this morning. Last night, we played Falstaff; tomorrow, Tristan. What a life we have. Are we blessed or are we not?'”

Zubin Mehta conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in the 250th anniversary concert of Mozart’s birth, Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7500; www.barbican.org.uk) 16 December

Original article appeared in the Independant