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.

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