Interview with Maestro Zubin Mehta
By Tali Gottlieb
Tali Gottlieb: What is the source of your unique relationship with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra? How did this very special relationship come about?
Zubin Mehta: The Orchestra and I are distantly related, through Indian Persian cousins – Ahashverosh who married the Jewish Esther. One of Esther’s children left for India and married one of my great grandparents.
Seriously, I came to Israel by chance, to substitute for Eugene Ormandy, the great conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra in May 1961. My concert was very well received, and the Orchestra called me back in 1963. My next visit to Israel was in 1965 and when Carlo Maria Giulini cancelled a tour to Australia and New Zealand. I was asked to take over this tour. It was then that my relationship with the Orchestra solidified. We played all over Australia and New Zealand, I lived with them, and I well remember the first time I invited the Orchestra members to dinner in Wellington.
TG: In what way does your work with the IPO differ from your work with other orchestras around the world?
ZM: I have come to enjoy a special rapport with the musicians of the IPO. They talk more, they listen more, they are more opinionated and that suits me just fine; I thrive on it, I love it! I have come to enjoy the oriental atmosphere of IPO rehearsals. They talk so much, they play, they concentrate and suddenly this huge beautiful palace of great sounds is built.
TG: Is the Israeli audience different from other audiences? If so, in what way?
ZM: The Israeli audience is more conservative than other audiences and I feel it is my personal failure that I have not been successful, during my forty-eight years in Israel, in convincing both the Orchestra and the audience to enjoy contemporary music more.
TG: Which of the IPO concerts conducted by you in Israel and/or abroad do you consider to be especially unique and memorable?
ZM: Historically, the first concert in Germany was very important, and the first concert in India was extremely important to me personally. The first concert at the Good Fence in 1981 behind the Iron Curtain in 1987, the first concert in Russia – these are all concerts with political overtones. I am very conscious of the fact that the IPO is the cultural ambassador of the State of Israel and its representative around the world, and I identify with this special role. Therefore, when playing with the Orchestra in Germany, for example, I felt a part of the Jewish people. I must honestly say that this unique feeling is reserved in my heart for the IPO alone, and it is a part of my special bond with Israel. Musically speaking, the whole slew of concerts that we did with Arthur Rubinstein and the one recording will remain forever embedded in my memory. I also perceive as extremely important all concerts in which young Israeli artists were introduced. My first tours with the IPO featured Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman as soloists, and later came the next generation of tremendously talented musicians such as Shlomo Mintz, Maxim Vengerov, Gil Shaham, Yefim Bronfman and Lahav Shani. Those are all events to be remembered.
I must also note, of course, the development of the Orchestra itself, which gives me the greatest joy. When I first came, the Orchestra was very good in certain areas, while other areas were significantly lower in quality. Today, the Orchestra is evenly balanced and all sections are excellent. This is what makes the IPO a world class orchestra on an international scale.
TG: How would you like to see the IPO 50 years from today?
It is my hope that the Israeli Government is far-seeing enough to recognise what a treasure they possess and that this incredible orchard of talent that we have must be properly nurtured, fed and watered. I feel that a tradition of contributing to the Orchestra has begun, and this was beautifully manifested in the significant capital donations which the Orchestra received to enable the rejuvenation of its home in Tel Aviv, the Charles Bronfman Auditorium. I am also very excited about the inauguration of the new rehearsal and chamber music hall of the Orchestra, which will enable our musicians to perform diverse chamber programs with the finest acoustic conditions, and enrich our ongoing efforts to expose young audiences to the world of classical music. Last but not least, it has always been my dream to have an Israeli Arab musician in the IPO!
TG: How do you sum up 50 years as Music Director of the IPO?
ZM: I hardly feel where the years have gone by and yet they say that I have conducted almost 3,486 concerts!