Should Israel Philharmonic Orchestra's Iconic Maestro Hand Over the Baton?

Zubin Mehta is the best thing that ever happened to Israel's premier orchestra, helping it maintain subscribers and global prestige. But after so many years, is he really its one and only music director?

Shay Skiff

Which is the exception among the following orchestras? The Berlin Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra? You obviously guessed correctly. It’s the IPO, but not for the reasons you thought.

As of last week, the New York Philharmonic has joined its counterparts in London and Berlin in launching a search for a new music director – after Alan Gilbert advised the famed New York symphony that he would step down as conductor in 2017 after four seasons. That’s considered a respectable amount of time at the helm.

For his part, Valery Gergiev will wrap up eight seasons as principal conductor of the London Symphony at the end of the current one. In Berlin, Sir Simon Rattle, a real veteran compared to the former two, will be concluding 16 seasons with that most highly praised orchestra, a near-eternity.

Oded Antman

And the Israeli counterpart of these symphonies? It is the exception. It’s not looking for a new music director. Zubin Mehta has not announced his retirement and in an interview with the stewards of the philharmonic about two years ago, the issue apparently never even arose. And another minor difference: Mehta has been serving as the IPO’s music director (initially he was called music adviser) for not eight or 16 or even 30 years, but rather for 46 years.

When he began working with the IPO 1961, Rattle was a 6-year-old kid and Gilbert hadn’t yet been born. And when the others step down from their current posts, Mehta’s tenure as music director will be approaching half a century, coming close to Willem Mengelberg’s record 50 years at Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

In New York, among the hot candidates mentioned to be next in line is Esa-Pekka Salonen, the outstanding Finnish conductor who coincidentally will be fully available in 2017 and will be the New York Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence beginning this fall. Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, who is no less hot with the baton, will be stepping down in Boston soon, and bets over the prospect that he will take over Gilbert’s position are growing. Other possible candidates who have been mooted for New York include the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s Vasily Petrenko, as well as a possible game of musical chairs with Simon Rattle moving to the Big Apple after 16 years in Berlin.

On the other hand, in the context of the Berlin Philharmonic, the name of Daniel Barenboim, who is loved by the musicians but has not been invited to conduct them, keeps coming up. He had to settle with being music director at the Staatsoper in the German capital. The names of women have not come up at any of these discussions.

What does a major orchestra require of its music director apart from high professional standards? He (or she) needs to know how to capture the imaginations of his musicians, while imposing an aura of discipline and awe. He needs to be a big enough name to attract an international following and to lead the ensemble on revenue-generating foreign tours. Music directors need to be brilliant politicians who can maneuver among the stakeholders, whether they are private entities, city councils or government culture ministries.

Moreover, the music director needs to endear himself to the public and encourage the purchase of ticket subscriptions. He also has to project an aristocratic and charismatic air among the wealthy people who constitute his orchestra’s home base – and elsewhere around the world at prestigious cocktail parties, to the point where those in attendance open their wallets and contribute millions to the orchestra in question.

In short, the music director needs to be a Zubin Mehta.

Range of talents

It is no wonder, therefore, that the IPO has been so attached to Mehta for so long, even appointing him music director for life in 1981. Without him, the orchestra would appear somehow naked. There is his personal magnetism; his reputation, an attraction for people the world over; his charisma; his aristocratic demeanor; his "political" prowess; his international connections – and no less important, his relatively minuscule salary, which rumor has it doesn’t even match the minimal wage of conductors in his league around the world. They say everyone has a replacement, but Mehta appears to be irreplaceable.

Since, in terms of the IPO as it is managed today, the maestro is irreplaceable – if he were to leave, it would need to undergo a fundamental change, but would such a change actually be welcome? With Mehta at the helm, the IPO has become an orchestra of international stature, but somehow along the way, it has neglected its Israeli context. It hasn’t, for example, had a house composer who can address the local contemporary part of its repertoire, or who in the process would constitute an important springboard vis-a-vis the international symphonic scene.

In addition, Mehta has never appointed a young, promising assistant among the huge reservoir of conducting talent at local music academies and conservatories, to pave their career paths. The Buchman-Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University even bears the conductor’s name. He has also never established an organized basis for allowing young conductors to have a chance to conduct the orchestra themselves. The despair among local conductors has nearly been forgotten, since they have known for decades that the IPO was out of bounds to them.

And not just to them. Israeli IPO soloists are also relatively rare, strange as it may sound. When asked once in an interview why Israelis don’t play with the philharmonic, Mehta responded that they were not good enough. In fact, musicians who have managed on occasion to be thrown a crumb in the form of performing in “a concert with the Maestro” within the framework of a less important series, or at children’s concerts, are not at the forefront of the orchestra.

Israeli performers, like composers, know it is only after they have held down a key position with a serious world orchestra that they will have a shot at being invited by the IPO to appear, rather than the reverse.

Joint birthdays

In 2016, both Mehta and the IPO will be celebrating their 80th birthdays. A lot has been said about the orchestra and its conductor, how they were born in the same year, fell in love at age 25, "consummated" their relationship a few years later and ultimately got married forever.

If such a thing is permissible, one could imagine – with great concern – Mehta deciding at some point that he will call it off and go down a new path after a half-century with the orchestra. One can imagine his announcement in a suite at the Tel Aviv Hilton, before the orchestra’s musicians' council and the secretary general, and the panicked thoughts that would begin to race through the latter’s head: How can we arrange an international tour now without our star? How will we pay for a proper replacement? How will subscribers, who feel so close to their conductor, react to his leaving them all of a sudden? Who will raise money for us now?

Is it possible to end such a marriage for life, to separate these Siamese twins? One can imagine the video clip of the farewell party, spiced with Yiddish and charming humor, being shown to the audience at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium, the IPO’s Tel Aviv home. And the shockwaves that the news would generate among the orchestra and the public, and the Israeli cultural scene as a whole.

Mehta, with full vigor, sought-after and adored around the world, would probably travel, continuing to charm audiences in Europe, America and China with romantic operas and the great works of the 19th century. How did he put in an interview in advance of the current season? Something like: We will never escape the Viennese school no matter how we look at it. We live by it. It’s our culture, where we came from, with the addition of a little Russian and French music. It’s the reason for our existence.

So if this should ever happen, the IPO will have to change its DNA. One cannot dream about Esa-Pekka Salonen, Alan Gilbert, Andris Nelsons or the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Gustavo Dudamel – the conductors in Mehta’s league – if only because of the salaries they command. How will the IPO reinvent itself to build a long-term musical culture? Perhaps by finding a music director that will make the orchestra cool, the best show in town, an embodiment of local/Tel Aviv cultural patriotism.