Conductor Zubin Mehta Discusses Wagner in Israel, Palestinian Musicians

As he prepares to step down from the Israel Philharmonic in 2019, he talked about a variety of topics with The Wall Street Journal

When Zubin Mehta  finds an orchestra to his liking, he sticks with it.

Article by Charles Passy | Wall Street Journal

The conductor is known to New Yorkers for his 13-year tenure (1978-1991) as music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, a stint that stands as the longest in the ensemble’s 175-year history.

But the 81-year-old Mr. Mehta, a native of Mumbai, has a much longer association with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, where he has served in various senior roles since 1969, including his current position as music director for life.

Despite that “for life” title, Mr. Mehta, who has homes in Los Angeles and Italy, has announced plans to step down from the Israel Philharmonic in 2019, which will mark his 50th year of involvement with the orchestra.

Meanwhile, he is conducting the orchestra in a North American tour that culminates with concerts this week at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan through Thursday.

We recently sat down with Mr. Mehta following a rehearsal in New York City with the Israel Philharmonic. The interview has been edited and excerpted.

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Q: What enables you to stay with an orchestra for so long?

A: It’s the daily breathing and communicating together that goes on. Tours are also very healthy for everybody. We play in different conditions acoustically. We play for different audiences.

Q: The Israel Philharmonic is more than an orchestra to a lot of people. Do you agree?

A: It’s because as an orchestra and as citizens of Israel, they have gone through a lot of crises. The Six Day War. The Yom Kippur War. Bombing from Gaza. They play under extreme conditions at times.

Q: You have talked about the idea of one day having a Palestinian member of the orchestra. Do you think that is possible?

A: We audition musicians behind curtains. So one day I’m hoping and praying the curtain will open and there will be a young Palestinian boy or girl standing there.

Q: You also have discussed your desire to play Wagner, the operatic composer known as a notorious anti-Semite, in Israel. Do you think that will happen?

A: At the moment, we are not even talking about it. There are still people living in Israel with numbers (tattoos for identifying Nazi concentration-camp prisoners) on their arms. Whether they are music lovers or not, it doesn’t matter. Emotionally, they don’t want to hear this music and be taken back to the times of terror. In the concentration camps, they heard this music.

Q: What do you miss about New York City?

A: The orchestra. I love them. I engaged more than 45 musicians during my 13-year tenure. And some of them are still there.

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Zubin Mehta, center, conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, during a concert at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan last month. Photo: Claudio Papapietro for The Wall Street Journal

Zubin Mehta, center, conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, during a concert at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan last month. Photo: Claudio Papapietro for The Wall Street Journal

Q: There has been news of late about plans to renovate David Geffen Hall (formerly Avery Fisher Hall), the Lincoln Center home of the New York Philharmonic, and address some issues, including the acoustics. What do you think about the space?

A: I was never comfortable. The hall is just too long. It’s just too big. I had no contact with the people sitting in the balcony. We made music on stage. What the people heard, I can’t tell you that.

Q: What’s your pre-concert ritual?

A: I must sleep at least an hour. It gets the metabolism to start working again.