Israeli Culture's Top Ten

Israeli Classical Music's No. 1: Zubin Mehta

The Musical Director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra; Zubin Mehta, 77.

For more than a decade, he was the driving force behind one of the most ostentatious and controversial musical projects in Israel: the renovation of the Charles R. Bronfman Auditorium (formerly the Mann Auditorium), the home of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. With one end in mind - enhancing the hall's acoustics - Mehta wheedled and cajoled, urged and persuaded. And last month, he concluded the mission by conducting the IPO in its newly reopened, glitteringly redone auditorium. But it's too soon to say whether the project was a success. Mehta is happy with the acoustic results, but listeners in the audience are bewildered: Is the sound good or mediocre? Where are the best seats? Is the sound too strong or too faint, clear or muffled? Time will tell. What's clear is that the acoustics that resonated in days of yore are gone for good.

In the meantime, everything else is as it was. At 77, Mehta is still youthfully vigorous and in demand around the world. He says he has had just 16 days off this year, and that only because of the cancellation of a series of concerts (in Afghanistan, of all places). His conducting, though, does not carry a distinctive, original, fresh artistic message. As a result, the orchestra, which under his baton sounds a bit listless and lifeless, is marking time with the routine repertoire. Will Mehta, in the last phase of his tenure, be able to foment a revolution not only in the hall but in the orchestra itself? To inject substance into the title it boasts as the flagship of Israeli culture? Will he succeed in creating a buzz and making the IPO the best show in town – now that all is ready and the ground prepared in the form of the luxurious new hall? Wasn't that the reason for all the work in the first place?

Zubin Mehta has been conducting in Israel for more than half a century, and for more than 40 years he has been artistic leader, as the IPO's adviser or musical director. It is an unrivaled record. He fills halls the world over. Under his baton, the IPO continues to chalk up brilliant achievements in world tours. He continues to be a great fundraiser and his charisma enthralls his home audience, as ever. But where is the orchestra headed, three years short of its eightieth birthday? What will be its artistic fate? These are questions which in no small measure are Mehta's to deal with. And time is pressing.

From another point of view, none of this depends on Mehta; he is a salaried employee of a cooperative. His remarks in a recent interview reflect this status: "I suggested this to the orchestra, but they turned it down"; and "I tried to persuade the orchestra, but unsuccessfully." Practically speaking, however, everything finally depends on him, because his relations with the orchestra are more symbiotic than employer-employee. His clout is not only symbolic, as witnessed by his high status in the world musical scene, the music project in Israel's Arab community that he promoted and made a permanent fixture, his support in rescuing the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv – and, of course, the renovation. When he wanted to make changes, he succeeded. Will he continue to want them now, too?