Legendary conductor Zubin Mehta said Monday he would retire from the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in October 2018 after more than 55 years of musical ties, the last three decades as musical director.
Mehta first directed the orchestra in 1961 and was appointed music adviser in 1969 and music director in 1978. The Philharmonic awarded him the title music director for life in 1981.
Mehta has conducted thousands of concerts for the Philharmonic, with which he has traveled across five continents. His tenure is matched only by Willem Mengelberg’s 50-year run with Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
In the introduction to a 2007 Hebrew-language biography, Mehta said he hoped he would be able to see the Israel Philharmonic play in Amman, Damascus and Cairo. He said he hoped to see a Palestinian musician join the orchestra, too.
Speaking to Haaretz this year, Mehta said: “I admire the Israelis ... for their patience at the status quo policy their present government leads. A situation in which nothing progresses. I am worried a great deal about it, as someone who knows Israel’s image around the world very well. Israel is isolated, and I will say it again: isolated.”
Mehta was born on April 29, 1936, in Bombay (now Mumbai), India. His father, Mehli Mehta, was a conductor who had turned to music after a brief attempt studying medicine. Zubin also initially planned to become a doctor.
The younger Mehta won the Liverpool International Conducting Competition in 1958. He conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra from 1962 to 1978, made the Israel Philharmonic his base, and conducted other important orchestras, all while recording profusely.
The New York Philharmonic also appointed him music director in 1978, a post he held for 13 years, longer than any other conductor. His tenure in New York, like his early years in Tel Aviv, was marked by his promotion of new music.
Mehta has also been the chief conductor of the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence since 1985, a post he will leave next year. He has served as chief conductor and music director at a number of opera houses, among them the Bavarian State Opera.
He has also recorded special opera productions and was the conductor of a hit of the century: the first concert of the three tenors – in Rome in 1990.
Mehta is an Indian citizen and a permanent resident of the United States, but he stayed in Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1991 Gulf War. He tried to promote peace through dialogue, culture and music, and opposed the ban on Richard Wagner’s works that lasted until just a few years ago.
Mehta was awarded in 1991 for his special contribution to Israel and the Philharmonic. Other prizes include the Wolf Prize, the UN Lifetime Achievement Peace and Tolerance Award, the Kennedy Center Honors and the Japanese imperial family’s Praemium Imperiale. He has had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame since 2011.
Mehta has two children from his first marriage, which ended in 1964. Since 1969 he has been married to retired American actress Nancy Kovack, with whom he has a daughter. He also has an Israeli son, born out of wedlock, with whom he is in regular contact.
Despite Mehta’s flourishing international career, his relationship with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is unique – each is greatly associated with the other. Although the Philharmonic has strong management and musicians, Mehta’s departure is likely to cause a shake-up requiring a reorganization, new music and a new identity.
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