Zubin Mehta: I miss my father being in the audience and criticising me later

Zubin Mehta, who returns to Mumbai to celebrate his 80th with three grand concerts, says he could still do with a bit of critiquing from his father

With six decades of work behind him, Padma Vibhushan Zubin Mehta has been hailed by many as the world’s greatest living conductor in classical music today. World leaders, royalty and music lovers have run out of superlatives to describe the power of his performances.

By Fali R. Singara  | Mid-Day

Mehta returns to the city of his birth on his 80th birthday to helm three concerts — two at the NCPA, and a third at Brabourne Stadium — organized by the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation (MMMF), a non-profit and classical music school set up in honour of his father. Some of the world’s most accomplished musicians and vocalists, including tenor Andrea Bocelli, will join him on stage.

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Edited excerpts from an email interview.

Q. Are you excited about performing in Mumbai once again?
A. I am very pleased to come back to the city of my birth, where I always feel so much at home. Joining me is my beloved Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and wonderful soloists like Pinchas Zukerman, Denis Matsuev, Andrea Bocelli and Maria Katzavara.

Q. The concert at Brabourne Stadium on April 20 will mark Bocelli’s first performance in India. You’ve collaborated with him before on a fantastic album. What is it like working with him?
A. I love working with him. I have made quite a few recordings with Andrea Bocelli, including operatic repertoire like Turandot and Aida. It is my greatest pleasure to work with this wonderful musician and finest tenor, who always comes superbly prepared to all our collaborations.

Q. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is also celebrating its 80th birthday with you. This is a rather special moment for the both of you.
A. When I was first engaged by the Israel Philharmonic, I went there at the age of 25. The leader of the Orchestra prophesized to me that we were both 25 and he was sure that we would both be there even when we were 50. And now it’s come to 80. At this point, every single member has been engaged by me, with a committee of advisors, of course. They are all like my children.

Q. In 2008, you performed with Placido Domingo in Mumbai to celebrate the birth centenary of your father
Mehli Mehta. An interesting collaboration would have to be when Domingo, José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti came together as The Three Tenors, and worked with you. Could you share some memories of that?
A. To work with these great artists twice — in Rome and Los Angeles — was a delightful experience for me, both artistically and personally. All three were so nice with each other, and not just as colleagues, but as friends.

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Q. In more recent times you’ve performed with Pt Ravi Shankar’s daughter Anoushka. How did that come about?
A. Panditji and I were close all our lives. When I was in the New York Philharmonic, I asked him to write a concerto. The result was a great piece of music which I played with him in New York, London and Paris. After we would finish the concerto, which was one hour long, the public would go crazy. Today, I have the great pleasure of interpreting his concerto with his daughter. She has played it with me in Israel and Florence to great success, and we will perform again in the future. She has named her son, Zubin, after me, which is such an honor.

Q. Your father was an accomplished conductor and musician, who performed well into his 80s. What was the best advice he shared with you on conducting and collaborating?
A. My father was a very strict and disciplined artist and I am proud to say that I inherited these qualities from him, which have helped me in my working life. I miss him very much. I miss him being in the audience and criticising me later.

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Q. The MMMF has initiatives to teach young children and promote classical music in India. They also have outreach programmes to teach underprivileged children across municipal schools. Your thoughts on the same?
A. It’s a wonderful music school set up in my father’s honour in Mumbai. It was my dream with Mrs Mehroo Jeejeebhoy, who now heads the school. There are wonderful volunteers who help her, and I’m so grateful to all of them. We have an incredible amount of talent; one day we’ll have many great Indian musicians or instrumentalists coming out of this school.

— As told to Hemal Ashar

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Wielding the bat(on)
Kekoo Nicholson, president of the Cricket Club of India (CCI), met Zubin Mehta a few months ago, backstage at the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) when the maestro was in Mumbai. “We chatted about a few things, but primarily about the three loves of his life, in this order — music, cricket and Parsi food (bhonu),” laughs Nicholson. “So to be performing at the Brabourne Stadium on April 20, would be more Zubin’s dream than mine,” he adds.

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Kekoo Nicholson

Regarding details about the concert, he said, “I do know that the East side of the ground is going to be used and I think the seating is chairs on the ground, not in the stands. It is only a portion of the ground that will be used. Our West side stands are being repaired.” Nicholson ended by saying that “it is going to be a remarkable experience and unbelievable ambience. Very rarely does the CCI give its grounds for anything other than cricket but we could not say no to a global icon and the mix of culture and cricket.”