In this day of peripatetic music directors who juggle multiple appointments in various corners of the globe, most conductors are unable, or unwilling, to forge permanent relationships such as were commonplace in the symphony orchestra world several generations ago.
By John Von Rhein Chicago Tribune
Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra stand in blithe defiance of that norm.
The Indian-born conductor, who will bring Israel’s leading symphonic ensemble to Symphony Center Monday night for their first downtown concert together since 1998, has long felt a deep kinship with its musicians, also the spirit and tradition of the Jewish people these players represent at home and around the world.
Mehta first led the orchestra in 1961 when he and the Israel Philharmonic were 25 years old. His appointment as music advisor in 1968 (this cooperative of musicians did not have music directors at that point in its history) led to his being named the IPO’s first music director in 1977, and music director for life in 1981.
What he calls their “lasting marriage” of 46 years (and counting) has no real equal on today’s world symphonic stage.
Having made music with several generations of IPO musicians through decades of political turmoil and bloodshed during which the orchestra feared terrorist attacks when it toured abroad, he says conducting the philharmonic is “something I do for my heart.”
An eminence grise at 77, Mehta remains politically outspoken to this day, even if his political activist days are behind him.
He recalls the day in 1967, at the outset of the Israeli-Arab Six-Day War, when he hopped the last plane to Israel before the closing of the Tel Aviv airport, to demonstrate solidarity with the people of his adopted nation. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he conducted special concerts dedicated to soldiers in the field.
Like his longtime friend and colleague, Daniel Barenboim, Mehta also has campaigned strenuously to break the longstanding taboo regarding the performance of Richard Wagner’s music in Israel.
Although an official ban has never existed, the taboo has persisted toward Hitler’s favorite composer, an infamous anti-Semite whose music still offends some listeners in a nation where the Holocaust remains a painful part of almost every family’s history.
Twice at concerts with the Israel Philharmonic in 1981, Mehta tried to present the Prelude to Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” Two of the orchestra’s 115 musicians, both concentration camp survivors, refused to take part. A poll of IPO subscribers suggested that a majority supported Mehta. Yet each time a storm of protests erupted, and the performances were aborted.
Mehta, a seasoned Wagner interpreter who led two Wagner “Ring” cycles at Lyric Opera in 1996, refuses to force the issue today.
“Wagner is not a problem; we just don’t play it,” he says. “There are a few people in the orchestra who have numbers tattooed on their arms. Hearing just a few bars of Wagner takes them back to the days of terror. We don’t want to do that. You have to consider their feelings.”
Even though the majority of IPO audience members “would love to hear Wagner’s music, we must be sympathetic to those who have suffered.”
Instead of performing Wagner, the IPO plays the music of what Mehta calls “Wagner’s children” – Bruckner, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. As a matter of fact, Monday’s concert here will contain Bruckner’s monumental Symphony No. 8 in C minor.
Although the Nazis appropriated Bruckner’s music, as they did Wagner’s, for its grandiosity and implicit expression of Aryan superiority, neither the orchestra nor its public has any trouble playing or hearing music by the humble Roman Catholic composer.
Born into a Parsi family in what is now Mumbai (his younger brother is former Ravinia CEO Zarin Mehta), Mehta moved to Vienna at 18 to study music at the same conservatory where Barenboim and the late Claudio Abbado also received their training, at around the same time.
His first day in the Austrian capital he attended a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Bohm. He came of age watching and listening to Herbert von Karajan, Erich Kleiber, Bruno Walter, Bohm and other podium greats lead that fabled orchestra, the “pit band” of the Vienna State Opera.
Through later music directorships with the Los Angeles and New York philharmonics, as well as more recent operatic posts in Florence, Munich and Valencia, Spain, Mehta has kept the fabled golden warmth of the Vienna Philharmonic in his mind and heart. he says.
“It’s the sound I grew up with – I didn’t know any other. I consider myself fortunate to have absorbed that distinctive orchestral sound right from the beginning.”