Maestro magic: Zubin Mehta's swan song with the Philharmonic Orchestra

Mehta estimates that he and the IPO have performed, both in Israel and overseas, more than 3,000 concerts together.

THE IPO with its music director, Zubin Mehta. (photo credit: SHAI SKIFF)
THE IPO with its music director, Zubin Mehta.
(photo credit: SHAI SKIFF)
These are the months in the Jewish calendar for joy and song, and the IPO is adding to the festivities. On October 10, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra invited the audience to the opening of its 82nd season at the gala concert conducted by Zubin Mehta and featuring Portuguese, world-recognized piano soloist Maria Joao Pires.
The 2017-2018 concert season will be filled with top-notch conductors and artists, some making their IPO debuts and others who are returning favorites to the IPO stage. This season also brings Indian-born Maestro Mehta full circle as he approaches 2019, his 50th year with the IPO.
“This will be my jubilee year and also a few years past my 80th birthday. Now it is time for something new. I am retiring from my position with the IPO after this season. Beginning October 2019, I will have no official position and will do what I want. For the first time in my life I am going to be a ‘free bird,’” he says with an impish grin, “and I think I am going to like it.”
Nevertheless, it will not be “quiet.” He explains how his phone is ringing with offers to come as a guest conductor. “Three times a year, I faithfully came to Israel to conduct the IPO,” he reflects. “Now managers of other orchestras tell me, ‘If I am not coming to Israel, I must come to them.’ I also have commitments with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra and its conductor, my friend Daniel Barenboim, until the year 2021.”
Perhaps the maestro realizes his freedom is a bit elusive. “Ahh,” he sighs, “you know I am already booked up.”
Mehta’s voice turns pensive as he speaks about the Argentinean/Israeli conductor/pianist Barenboim, with whom he shares a long enduring and special friendship. “Daniel does not come to Israel now, and I miss him. Making music together here in Israel was one of my delights.
“Daniel Barenboim is one of the great musicians of our times,” Mehta continues, “and it is a great tragedy that, due to his disagreement with the people who are running the country and his criticism regarding the occupation of territories, he does not feel free to return to make music here. In my mind, Israel should do everything they can to bring him back.
“That is my opinion, and just like noses, everyone has one,” he quips.
Returning to the subject of the IPO, Mehta points out that he has an entire season to go through before relinquishing his post. “This year, I am also taking the IPO on tour to China and the United States.”
Mehta will open the IPO season with concerts in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa from October 10 to 22. Pires will be soloist, performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3. On the program will be the first IPO performance of Footnote, Suite for Orchestra by Amit Poznansky, and the IPO debut of Tabla Concerto composed and played by Zakir Hussain, which commemorates 25 years of diplomatic relations between India and Israel.
The tabla is a Hindustani drum. It is not a melodic instrument. It is “pulse, color, suggestion, and points of sound,” writes Hussain, whose music is applauded as a fusion of Western and Indian sounds.
“One must be open to ‘taste’ new sounds,” comments Mehta about his choice in concert programing. “[Austrian composer Joseph] Haydn started experimenting with new sounds hundreds of years ago when he wrote the Sinfonia Concertante for violin, cello, bassoon, oboe and orchestra. Throughout musical history, composers have been searching for new sounds and experimenting with different combinations of instruments.”
Mehta estimates that he and the IPO have performed, both in Israel and overseas, more than 3,000 concerts together. His career with the IPO began as music adviser in 1969. In 1977 he was appointed music director, and in 1981 he was appointed music director for life. When asked about memorable concerts, he closes his eyes slightly and a smile plays over his lips.
“In 1961, I was just starting out, and made myself available to come as a worldwide replacement conductor who could travel on short notice. I received word that Eugene Ormandy was not able to conduct the IPO, and so I traveled to Israel as fast as I could. This would be my first concert with the IPO and it was personally a very important event in my life.”
“However,” he adds softly, “musically, it was not very good. Nevertheless, we repeated the concert so many times to audiences across the country, that it got better! It was an unbelievable occasion I cannot forget.”
Other memorable concerts Mehta remembers were the first time he took the IPO to Berlin; the joint concerts of the IPO and the New York Philharmonic; and the concerts of the IPO and the Berlin Philharmonic, sitting together not only on the Israel stage but also in the German city of Weimar, near the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp. “These were wonderful, emotionally charged occasions for both the orchestra and myself,” says Mehta.
He cautions that he does not meddle in politics yet feels personally involved with Israel. His actions during the last 50 years prove the point. During the Six Day War, he hitched a ride with an El Al cargo plane, sitting between the boxes of ammunition that were being sent to the soldiers on the front lines. He stayed in solidarity with the country at the modest IPO guest house for the duration of the war.
In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, he insisted on taking the IPO to the soldiers on the front lines to boost their spirits. In 1991, during the Gulf War, he came and stayed in bombarded Tel Aviv, and simply got on with his job of conducting the IPO in rehearsals and concerts with gas masks at the ready.
Last year, Mehta celebrated his 80th birthday by bringing the 110-member IPO to Mumbai, the city of his birth. “Mumbai is my home. To bring the IPO to this city, which is filled with so many personal and musical memories, was another important, emotional highpoint in my life.
“I first came to Israel when there were no diplomatic relations between India and Israel. Today that has changed; the world is constantly changing. I hope one day to see peace between India and Pakistan, and between Israel and Palestine.”
Looking over the years, Mehta applauds the IPO’s development and current status as one of the excellent orchestras in the world. Avi Shoshani, the executive director of the IPO, says respectfully, “Zubin is a dear friend of the orchestra and a dear friend of mine. He is a big lover of the State of Israel, as well as a gentleman who gave us enough time to find the right conductor to fill the position of music director.”
Mehta points out that a conductor must possess the abilities to cajole, dominate and inspire an orchestra, all at the same time. “Yet, all things must come to an end,” he says matter- of-factly about his retirement from the IPO. “There is never enough time. One must use the time one has.” • ‘Beginning October 2019, I will have no official position and will do what I want. For the first time in my life I am going to be a “free bird...” and I think I am going to like it.’