Zubin Mehta is synonymous with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO). The stellar Indian-born conductor has been with the ensemble, on a regular basis, for close to half a century, and there is undoubtedly a special mutual relationship between the iconic conductor and the players.
Mehta will celebrate his 80th birthday on Friday, but when he recently met the press, in the middle of a three-day run of concerts to mark the milestone, he looked fit, trim and brimming with energy. I was happy to see he had full use of both legs. The last time I saw him, at last year’s Enescu Festival in Bucharest, he was moving with some difficulty, with the aid of a walking stick, following a knee operation.
People of a certain vintage often find it tough to regain full mobility after surgery, but Mehta is clearly made of sterner stuff.
The press conference took place on the stage of the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv, where an hour earlier Mehta had put the IPO through its paces in a dress rehearsal. The soon-to-be octogenarian certainly has plenty of achievements to look back on, but he is clearly not about to rest on his hard-earned laurels.
Global megastar status notwithstanding, the birthday boy retains a sense of wonderment at his lofty status and the glittering résumé he has accumulated thus far.
“We musicians are always dreaming,” he says with a smile. “I never dreamt that I would still be here 47 years after I started as music director.”
They say you can’t grow old if you keep looking forward.
If that is the case, Mehta will have to put off elderly status for some time. He has plenty in his professional pipeline, both with the IPO and as guest conductor at various leading venues around the world.
“As far as my futures plan with the orchestra [are concerned], we are going on a tour of South America in August and now, after my birthday celebrations, I will be at La Scala [in Milan] doing [Richard Strauss opera] Der Rosenkavalier.
And so life goes on,” he adds philosophically.
Indeed it does. The man appears to be indefatigable.
“I don’t feel 80 at all,” he noted, stating the somewhat obvious. “I am looking forward to tonight’s concert, and then I am going to India, to my hometown of Mumbai, and I am looking forward to our three concerts there, with Mr. Zukerman, Mrs. Zukerman, [Russian pianist-composer] Denis Matsuev and [Italian tenor] Andrea Bocelli.” The said married couple are renowned Israeli violinist-conductor Pinchas Zukerman and Canadian cellist Amanda Forsyth, who were also due to perform with the IPO a few hours after the Tel Aviv press conference.
Mehta may not feel 80, but he is certainly making the most of reaching his four-score years, and there are a host of festive events lined up over the next few months.
“After India I got to Florence to celebrate my birthday there, and then the real birthday will be in Vienna, on the 29th [of April], with the Vienna Philharmonic, and Daniel Barenboim as a soloist.”
One can understand Mehta’s affinity with the Austrian capital, for it was there that he embarked on his musical career in earnest. He received his initial musical training under the auspices of his father, Mehli Mehta, a noted violinist and the founder of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. For a while the youngster considered becoming a doctor, but his genes soon won out and he relocated to Vienna in 1954, at the age of 18, where he enrolled at the Akademie für Musik and joined the conducting program under Hans Swarowsky, a Hungarian-born conductor of Jewish descent.
Mehta made rapid progress and won the Liverpool International Conducting Competition in 1958 and was also a prize winner of the summer academy at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, USA. By 1961 he had already conducted the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras. It was in that year that he also debuted with the IPO.
The Tel Aviv birthday concert three-parter primarily featured works by some of the usual suspects – Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Liszt and Mahler – but also a delightful “extramural” item in the form of Matsuev’s “Jazz Improvisations.” It is just one of many examples of Mehta’s ongoing efforts to keep up with developments in the classical music sphere. But it hasn’t been easy, as Mehta noted when responding to a question about his legacy with the IPO.
“I think it is expanding of the repertoire, in all directions,” he noted. “We play a lot of contemporary music – not enough for me, but we play it for our public, which is quite conservative.
I have to push it always, and we do it, with Israeli, and European and American contemporary music.”
Over the years, Mehta has won countless awards and titles all over the world, including a special award at the 1991 Israel Prize ceremony, and the Praemium Imperiale – the World Culture Prize in Memory of His Imperial Highness Prince Takamatsu – by Japan, and even garnering a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In an ideal world, the arts domain would be left unsullied by politics. But, as we all know, the reality is very different.
Mehta was reminded by a German journalist that he once observed that music has the power to reconcile warring factions, but that the sides have to want to listen to the music. The correspondent basically wanted to know why, with the best efforts of Mehta and the IPO, there was still conflict in the Middle East.
The conductor, as is his wont, proffered a positive response.
“Both sides have to want it [reconciliation],” he declared.
“And if they want it, it can happen tomorrow,” he added in no uncertain terms. “Everyone has his own political agenda.
It is politics that is in the way.”
Mehta does his best to circumnavigate the local political minefield and sees music as the great bridge builder. He once said that one of his dreams, in the context of the IPO, was to see “an Israeli Arab sit among Israeli Jews and make music.” He is doing his best to make that an eventuality by overseeing classical music programs for Druse, Muslim and Christian Arab youngsters in Shfaram and Nazareth.
Politics notwithstanding, Mehta has been giving his all, for over half a century, to make the IPO one of the world’s top orchestras, and to keep Israel’s flag flying proudly across the globe.
“We represent the positive side of this country all over the world,” he says. “We are going to India tomorrow. There are people in India who also question the politics of Israel, but I assure you, the ones who will come to the concert, if they agree with Israeli politics are not, they are hearing the philharmonic playing Dvorak and Brahms and Verdi etc.
When they stand up at the end of the concert, and give us an ovation, this is good for Israel too.”
The same could be said for Mehta. Long may he reign over the IPO.