Who Will Replace Zubin Mehta as the Israeli Philharmonic's Maestro?

Zubin Mehta will only hand over his baton in 2019, but rumors are already rife about his successor. Will he or she be able to bring back the orchestra's innovative repertoire of three or four decades ago?

Amir Mandel
Maestro Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, at a concert in 2013.
Maestro Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, at a concert in 2013.Credit: Shai Skiff
Amir Mandel

Many challenges will face the new musical director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 2019 after the departure of maestro Zubin Mehta, which was announced at the end of December. These will not only include the need to retain the public and international stature of the orchestra – no small feat in itself – but also to refresh its repertoire and restore the its self-confidence as an innovative and premier ensemble, which it was during the early days of Mehta's tenure.

The truth is that very few conductors in the world are capable of carrying out such a feat. Three who could do so have all worked with the IPO for a time, before moving on to greater things.

Most prominent was Kirill Petrenko, who was happy to conduct the concerts a few years ago with his two grandmothers, who live in Israel, in the audience. But Petrenko didn’t wait for the end of Mehta’s term and has meanwhile garnered a much more prestigious appointment as the musical director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Another important figure at the IPO was Antonio Pappano, who served as its principal guest conductor in the late 1990s, after which their relationship dissolved. He is currently the manager of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London, having conducted many recordings there. He is undoubtedly one of the world’s leading conductors these days, and the IPO will no longer be of interest to him.

The third candidate who holds promise, as did Mehta when he first arrived some five decades ago, is the young Israeli conductor Lahav Shani. He electrified orchestra and audience alike during his debut in 2013, at the age of 24. Since then he’s become musical director of the Rotterdam Orchestra, which appointed him after a single, impressive appearance.

Israeli conductor Lahav Shani appearing with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in honor of its 80th birthday, in December, 2016.Credit: Oded Antman

Shani says he is fully booked for the next seven years, but despite that, his name crops up on every list on which bets are placed, and the IPO may seek him out.

Shani is charismatic, well liked by the musicians and able to arouse audience enthusiasm. His young age means less experience but also more engagement in the digital-internet world which classical music is learning to blend into, plus curiosity-provoking repertoire choices. It’s not at all clear that a role with Israel's Philharmonic will serve his career well, but he’ll have to consider this if called upon.

Other names being touted are 58-year-old Manfred Honeck, musical director of the Pittsburgh Orchestra, who successfully conducted the IPO on two occasions; 44-year-old Vladimir Jurowski, the successful musical director of the London Philharmonic, who is well remembered here after his appearance in 2012; and Vasily Petrenko, an impressive conductor who seems to be extremely busy, serving as musical director of both the Liverpool and Oslo Philharmonics.

In addition, there is Pablo Heras-Casado, an excellent 39-year-old Spanish conductor, who grew up in a historical musical tradition featuring period instruments, and whose appointment could take the IPO in new and surprising directions; and Gianandrea Noseda, the Israeli orchestra's current leading guest conductor. Noseda, 52, was formerly musical director of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, in which capacity he conducted several excellent recordings.

IPO secretary general Avi Shoshani says that he believes the orchestra will retain its stature and continue touring the world while remaining a central feature in the Israeli landscape.

Vasily Petrenko conducting the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.Credit: Mark McNulty

“The orchestra is now identified with Mehta and one should remember that this has been a process – no exact replacement should be sought, and no reconstruction of the bond he had with it should be attempted. It will be something different,” Shoshani says.

He emphasizes that he doesn’t yet have a direction, concept or plan, and that the orchestra hasn’t started discussing the subject of Mehta's successor yet. Nevertheless, over the years good relations have developed with many conductors and some of the people currently on the list are worthy potential candidates.

It is clear that finances will be a major hurdle. The special relationship the orchestra had with Mehta could be attributed in part to his agreement to work for a relatively low salary. From this point of view, for a new musical director there will have to be a miracle – he or she will have to really want the job and agree to compromise on a wages. Otherwise some creative solutions will probably have to be found to boost their income.

Classical 'power couple'

Zubin Mehta first conducted the IPO in 1961, and was appointed its music adviser in 1969 and its music director in 1978. Three years later, he was awarded the title of music director for life. For now, he says he is not worried about what will happen in the future.

“We’re not searching yet” for his replacement, says the Indian-born maestro, who will turn 91 in April. “When there are candidates I’ll give my opinion – if they ask me for it.”

Manfred Honeck, musical director of the Pittsburgh Orchestra.Credit: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

For now he’s very engaged in the present, but manages to set aside some time for an interview after a long day of rehearsals. He’s pleased as he looks back on the past.

“Fifty years is a nice number,” he smiles. “Six months ago I decided it was enough, but I’d like to complete half a century of this special relationship. We’ll have more concerts and tours and the orchestra will have time to find a replacement.”

He doesn't have an explanation for the secret of his special and lengthy relationship with the IPO.

“In 1961 I received a cable signed by Zvi Haftel, first violinist and musical director of the orchestra. He asked if I’d replace Eugene Ormandy, who had cancelled his engagement. I didn’t have anything to do at the time and I didn’t know what orchestra this was. In 1961 the official letterhead still said ‘The Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra,’ and that didn’t interest me," Mehta recalls.

"I did come and conduct in the end. I’m not sure the concert was that good but the atmosphere was positive and, more importantly, I was invited back. In 1963 I conducted a program I knew well – Bruckner’s ninth symphony and six orchestral pieces by Webern. It went well, and the relationship was consolidated. In 1966 I replaced Carlo Maria Giulini on a tour to Australia and that’s when I really connected with orchestra members.”

In 1973 something changed, which apparently contributed to the unusual relationship forged between the conductor and the musicians. Up until that point, the orchestra was managed firmly by concertmaster Haftel, assisted by secretary general Abe Cohen. Haftel retired in 1973 and Avi Shoshani also came on board.

Officially Shoshani was and remains the IPO secretary general; it is the musicians who chose their management. However, in practice, he has gradually assumed many management roles, including handling budgets, international relations and overseas tours.

Mehta and Shoshani have a special bond; indeed, they could be called the power couple of Israel’s classical music scene. The maestro’s reputation enables the scheduling of tours abroad and attracts leading soloists and conductors for modest fees. For his part, Shoshani moves things forward thanks to his large network of international contacts, his powers of persuasion and his obstinacy.

“Without him,” says Mehta, “what I and the management want could not happen. When I’m here he serves as my 'elbows.' He allows me to manage my time between all the tasks and people who want to meet me.”

In addition to the quality of the music produced and the popularity Mehta has garnered in Israel as the IPO's musical director for life, it seems that the special relationship with Shoshani gave rise to a synergism that enabled creation of connections and attainment of achievements around the world – as well as affording Mehta respect, comfort and a good quality of life during his time in Israel. This must have made it easier for him to stay here for such a long time.

In view of the fact that it's located on the periphery – after all, we aren't talking about Vienna, Berlin, New York or Amsterdam – the IPO has chalked up some surprising accomplishments. It survives mostly thanks to ticket sales, and manages to draw soloists and conductors who range from good to excellent. It has a long season consisting of a full subscription series of concerts, while also going on many foreign tours. It successfully renovated its home base, at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv, and constantly seeks to improve its musical talent.

Despite this, in recent years I personally have been going to fewer symphony concerts. Forty, 30 and even 20 years ago the IPO repertoire included novel, relevant and intriguing elements, but now it seems to be locked into conventional mainstream symphonic music. Mehta is aware of this criticism but believes that this phenomenon is not connected to the orchestra or its management, but rather to the audience.

“I’d like to diversify and perform newer pieces but management is holding me back since such programs drive away our public and we rely on selling tickets,” he explains.

It’s puzzling that three or four decades ago, similar audiences streamed into concert halls despite the varied, innovative and daring programs. The orchestra’s management believes that there was no competition then – that in the 1960s and '70s, there was some magical aura around anything that came from Russia, so that pieces by Shostakovich and Prokofiev were easily accepted by the audience.

For whatever reasons, during those years, the philharmonic projected confidence and boldness, winning subscribers’ trust. This translated into a willingness to come and experience a diverse repertoire. Today the orchestra can still fill an auditorium, but it’s busy placating its subscribers. But this hasn't helped it to win their trust, since when it deviates from the mainstream they don’t come. And that is precisely the main challenge that will face the IPO's new musical director.

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