Monday, December 31, 2012

Conductor Zubin Mehta still going places with Israel Philharmonic after more than half a century

By Nancy T. Lu

Zubin Mehta, the renowned conductor associated with the World Cup concerts of the Three Tenors, holds the amazing track record of wielding the baton for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra for over half a century. He first conducted the orchestra by substituting for Eugene Ormandy back in 1961 on two weeks’ notice. At that time he had already made his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

During his visit to Taipei with the orchestra in September 2002, Mehta spoke of the main difference of the orchestra: “I personally picked every musician in the orchestra. There are 65 musicians in all.”

The then 66-year-old Mehta, who first brought the orchestra to Taipei in1989, revealed that he could institute changes at will. In fact, he initiated the so-called jeans concerts with the musicians putting on very casual attires. He himself dressed up in Indian kurta. But so far, Mehta and his musicians chose to stick to tails during their Taiwan concert tours.

Mehta had no union problem. Whenever an opening in the orchestra had to be filled, he could cast around – even abroad – for a musician.

He remarked during an interview on the tourist bus from the Taoyuan Airport to Taipei at that time: “Half the orchestra today is Russian. Fifty percent of the musicians are born in Israel.”

The Associated Press reported that year that the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra had to cancel a U.S. concert tour for it could not find an American security firm willing to guard its musicians. The orchestra was originally scheduled to perform in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago, but called off the U.S. leg of its international tour when it couldn’t organize a security company to protect its musicians.

Mehta thought it “stupid” of the insurance company to refuse to cover and protect the musicians. During the Taiwan visits of the orchestra over the years, air-tight security procedures were put in place even before the arrival of the musicians. Each concert venue had to be thoroughly checked beforehand.

Asked if it was “inconvenient” to be working with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Mehta quipped: “No, it’s not inconvenient. We’re not afraid. In Israel, we are playing to full house all the time. In contrast, the restaurants have been half full.”

Only about three months earlier that year, the orchestra was playing a concert when a suicide bomber attacked in a café only about five or six minutes from the concert hall.

“The musicians take it as part of life,” Mehta said. “Not one complaint can be heard from them. They come on tour, leaving behind their families. This is our life. We have to be positive.”

Mehta did say before the end of the interview: ”We are looking forward to playing in New York next year.”

Born in Bombay, India, Mehta – an Indian passport holder holder with the green card of an immigrant in America and a Zoroastrian  – went to Vienna when he was 18. He began conducting when he was 16. Los Angeles is now his home.

Before deciding on a career in conducting, he was studying to be a medical worker. “Family indoctrination” had to do with it, he said. He later opted to get out, choosing a future in music.

Mehta’s father, however, was a conductor until he retired in 2000. His last concert with the American Youth Symphony in Los Angeles even featured cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

Mehta grew up exposed to music all the time. His father played the violin and the piano. As son, he tried to do the same.

During his years in Vienna, he idolized Herbert von Karajan. He went to all his rehearsals and concerts, learning a lot from von Karajan in the process.

Mehta became the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s music adviser in 1969, music director in 1977 and music director for life in 1981. As of 2002, he had already conducted the orchestra in 1,070 concerts. He spends three months yearly with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1998, Mehta also became the director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.

Mehta cited working with Chinese director Zhang Yimou in Puccini’s “Turandot” years ago as one of his rather unforgettable experiences. The opera was staged in Beijing and in Florence.

As of this writing, the 76-year-old Mehta is preparing to return to Taiwan with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra for a New Year’s concert in Taipei on January 3, 2013. The maestro remains active, perhaps still needing only at least one hour of sleep before a concert as he claimed years ago.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Third visit of relics rekindles special devotion to St. Therese of the Child Jesus

I finally caught up with the relics of St. Therese of the Child Jesus
at the Chapel of the Carmelite Monastery of St. Therese of the Child
Jesus on Gilmore Street, Quezon City, Metro Manila, this morning.

The chase began at the Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Cubao on
Lantana Street on Dec. 23. I went there in the afternoon only to learn
that the relics would be arrriving at 9 p,m. that day. The following
day I heard from a friend that the sacred items would be leaving the
premises at 3 p.m. on Dec. 24 even though the news report in the
Philippine Inquirer indicated that the Archdiocese of Cubao would have
the relics consisting of bone fragments of the saint from Lisieux until Dec. 26.

I returned to the cathedral to verify the whereabouts of the relics of
the saint known as the Little Flower yesterday, Dec. 25, only to hear
that these had already been moved  to the Chapel of the Carmelite
Monastery. This convent is walking distance from where I live.

I rushed to Gilmore to check. However, the relics were not for public
viewing yesterday. So I went back this morning. And at last I saw the
beautiful case of the relics. Devotees filed in to wipe the case with
hankies. Members of the Knights of Columbus guarded the relics.

The relics, making a third Philippine visit, would tour the country
for four months. Earlier visits to the country took place in years
2000 and 2008.

One day I will make a pilgrimage to Lisieux, Normandy, France. This is
my dream.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Santa Claus from Taiwanese miniaturist Chen Forng-shean: the smaller, the better

Most people like to think big. But Taiwan’s rare find Chen Forng-shean prefers to downsize everything, even setting records in creating miniatures barely seen by the naked eye over the years.

Miniaturist Chen recently worked on two very tiny Father Christmas figures of resin, rendering them to look very much like white-bearded Santa Claus in red outfits with black belts, matching red caps and black boots. They were incredibly small. In fact, Chen placed both on a pencil’s lead tip, which measured only 0.2 centimeter in diameter, to highlight their size. Both with average length, width and height of only 0.06 centimeter appeared to be jumping with joy in keeping with the Christmas holiday spirit.

The Xindian City-based Chen spent 30 days creating his smiling Santa Claus pair with bags of goodies intended to bring happiness to children in their grips. After 10 failed attempts to make what he had in mind, Chen finally finished creating the resin pair. Each was 0.05 centimeter long, 0.05 centimeter wide and 0.08 centimeter high. The works could only be seen clearly with the help of a powerful magnifying glass.

Giving each Santa Claus a jolly facial expression proved one of the biggest challenges encountered by Chen Forng-shean this time. Introducing the red color on the outfit was also very difficult. Only steady hands with full control over each brush stroke made possible Chen’s success in executing what he set out to accomplish.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Remembering sitar legend Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar, the world’s best-known sitar guru, will never play again. At 92,he is gone.

In 1966, Beatle George Harrison traveled to Bombay, India, to seek lessons from Shankar, thereby catapulting the Indian musician to great fame in the West. In those days, Shankar enjoyed the status of the sitar raga king. He played an exotic long-necked instrument with seven strings echoed by 11 sympathetic strings under the elevated frets. He made a big impact at some of the famous rock festivals of the 1960s like Woodstock and the Monterey Pop festival.

Shankar came to Taipei years ago (see picture above), bringing with him his daughter Anoushka. The half-sister of singer Norah Jones paled in comparison to her legendary father at the Indian music concert. Nevertheless the adolescent performer attracted a lot of attention as her father’s very young protégé. Shankar encouraged his daughter to explore and find her own way in interpreting music on the sitar.

George Harrison remained Ravi Shankar’s best-known pupil. In fact, years after his news-making encounter with the sitar master, the British guitarist and songwriter produced Shankar’s four-CD retrospective album. He later also did the introduction for a book of memoirs by the artist who dedicated his lifetime to the promotion of Indian music around the world.