Zubin Mehta Is Worried: 'Israel Is Isolated'

In an interview for his 80th birthday, the veteran Israel Philharmonic Orchestra maestro is certain the audience loves him, attacks the government and fears for its international image.

Haggai Hitron
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Zubin Mehta. He and the IPO were born the same year, and fell in love at 25.
Zubin Mehta. He and the IPO were born the same year, and fell in love at 25.Credit: Oded Antman
Haggai Hitron

The successful marriage between Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra began in 1961 as love at first sight, and has lasted through over 2,000 concerts.

The Indian-European-American conductor, who is celebrating his 80th birthday this year, has always filled a central role in the preservation of a wonderful orchestra that inundated the Israeli audience with the finest of European culture. Hundreds of wonderful musical experiences took place in the Charles Bronfman Auditorium, formerly known as the Fredric R. Mann Auditorium (“Heichal Hatarbut”) in Tel Aviv, and at the top of the list are the opera concert events conducted by Mehta, starring some of the greatest singers in the world. Some of them visited Israel mostly due to him.

International orchestral and operatic conductor Zubin Mehta and his wife Nancy pose during ceremonies honoring Mehta with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood, California March 1, 2011. Credit: Reuters

In the introduction to his biography in Hebrew in 2007 (“Zubin Mehta: The Score of my Life”), Mehta wrote that 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.

This week, in a short interview, the maestro without hesitation chose a categorical wording on only one matter: “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.”

Later, in a stream of association: “I hate to imagine what would happen if one of the settlements had to be evacuated. After all, the settlers say they will be removed only ‘over their dead bodies.’ I say: Think about the human aspect. You cannot take land from someone else and explain it is yours according to the Bible. It is as if we, the believers in the Zoroastrian religion, now demand land in Iran because a thousand years ago we lived there.”

Israel Philharmonic conductor Zubin Mehta takes a bow.Credit: Oded Antman

Let us return to the beginning of the romance: In May 1961, Haaretz music critic, the composer Alexander Uriah Boskovich, wrote that Mehta had succeeded in Dvořák’s Second Symphony “even though it is hard to resuscitate music that is so boring in its naiveté.”

Boskovich characterized the movements of the charismatic conductor as “eye-pleasing gestures, simple and economical, but dynamic.” In October 1961 he wrote: “You should see him as one of the greatest conductors of the future. His energy stands him in good stead in every historical musical range and every style.”

The love story with Israel joins Mehta’s love of his frenetic lifestyle. His father was a musician, but his parents wanted him to study medicine. The young Zubin followed their instructions, but very quickly retreated from his obedience and chose music instead.

Conductor Zubin Mehta (R) with former Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat (L)Credit: GPO

In characteristic fashion – to-the-point speaking is one of the most important elements in Mehta’s charisma – he writes at the beginning of his biography that he has been in what he considers to be the best profession of any in the world, constantly surrounded by masterpieces. Elsewhere in the book, concerning the problems of musicians of the New York Philharmonic, he says that unfortunately it is possible in any orchestra to find a few musicians who look like they are bored, and this is a riddle. How many people can say about themselves that in their profession they can work with so much beauty, with such satisfaction, as musicians can?

Mehta is reaching 80, his birthday is on April 29, but he is still capable of keeping up with his frenetic lifestyle and very demanding pace of work. In Munich, one of his home bases, he says he conducts two or three opera performances a week; and in Israel, where he appears occasionally, he says proudly that his pace is seven performances a week.

Does he ease up at all? Mehta says yes, he sometimes takes “short vacations – a week here, a week there.”

As for rehabilitating his playing ability – thousands of music lovers in Israel and hundreds of thousands from all over the world know his video clips (available on YouTube) immortalizing Mehta playing the double bass in 1969 playing Franz Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A Major – better known as the “Trout Quintet” – alongside the “Jewish Mafia” of Itzhak Perlman, Daniel Barenboim and Pinchas Zukerman, and Jacqueline Mary du Pré. A commercial DVD was produced from the performance.

How much free time would he need today to renew his abilities as a bass player, which he abandoned a long time ago? At least a month of practice, says Mehta. After all, his fingers are no longer as strong as they used to be. In theory, he could come back to the bass, but he makes it clear he has no such plans.

Zubin Mehta and the IPO. Is it possible to separate these Siamese twins?Credit: Shay Skiff

Not after a minuet

Going way back into his past once again, in an interview with Michael Ohad in 1963 – when the name Mehta was still a problem for many Israelis to transliterate into Hebrew, in the picture caption for the newspaper interview it appeared in Hebrew as “Makhta” – the maestro spoke of the Israeli custom to come to concerts in casual dress: “An audience that comes to a symphony concert with rolled up sleeves makes me ill,” he told Ohad. “Music demands respect and is intended for an aristocratic audience. Aristocracy is the spirit.”

Today, he has changed his opinion, is more tolerant, contains himself. Yes, it is possible to agree to non-formal dress too, mostly in the summer, he says.

Applause in the middle of a work? Mehta does not join those who encourage it in order to break down barriers, drawing in a new crowd for the classical scene. Diplomatically, he says that sometimes people applaud in the middle of a work out of lack of knowledge, it depends on when they do it. Not after a minuet, please, he begs.

Which important symphony is the most challenging for you, still?

“Mahler’s Seventh. A very difficult work.”

Which important works do you choose to avoid?

Mehta hesitates, and says he is not a great fan of British music, but he does conduct Edward Elgar’s music.

Of the leading orchestras in the world, including those you have conducted, which can you identify from their playing even with your eyes closed?

“Maybe a only a few, mostly according to the woodwinds.”

What are some of the peak experiences of your career?

Mehta says it’s hard to pick anything in particular – but definitely the first time he took the Israel Philharmonic to India in 1994, and the performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s cantata Gurre-Lieder in Tel Aviv... and also the first time he conducted the Israel Philharmonic in Berlin in 1995.

In his book, Mehta mentions the joint performance of the Israel Philharmonic and the Bavarian State Orchestra in Weimar in 1999. He also notes that the previous day he visited with his Israeli colleagues the memorial site at the nearby Buchenwald concentration camp.

He speaks many languages: His native tongue is Gujarati (the language of the largest province in India, which was also Mahatma Gandhi’s first language), Hindustani, German, English, Italian and French.

As for his dreams, he says he dreams mostly about his parents, but it’s not clear in what language. In his autobiography, Mehta wrote about his difficulties in communicating with musicians whose language he does not speak, for example two musicians from the Israel Philharmonic who spoke only Russian. Many musicians in the orchestra do not speak English or Yiddish, which he is partly fluent in, he says.

Do you listen to music for pleasure?

“Hmmm. Sometimes,” he says. “Mostly chamber music, and public chamber music concerts here in Israel mostly.”

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