Mehta: 40 Years of Making Music in the Holy Land


In the cinematic story of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), Zubin Mehta has earned the status of leading man. Leonard Bernstein developed a passionate bond with the orchestra, conducting on Mount Scopus for soldiers in 1948. Toscanini led it before him. But on Dec. 9 at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra will honor Mehta’s 40-year tenure as the IPO’s music director, a time in which he has become identified with it as no other conductor.

Mehta, a Zoroastrian who retains strong connections to his native India, calls the Jewish state “my beloved Israel.” He was there, in 1991, when Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles at Israel and audience members had to wear gas masks. At the start of the Six-Day War, he made a winding return to Israel to be with the IPO. At 73 — the same age as the orchestra he’s conducted in Israel over 2,200 times — he’s become its face for people who attend its concerts at Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium, where he’s often joined by friends like Daniel Barenboim and Pinchas Zukerman. But he makes it clear that his biggest pleasure is leading the IPO as Israel’s cultural ambassador.

“As an influence within Israel, I think the orchestra is absolutely important, but representing the nation outside, this has been very, very important,” Mehta said in a phone interview, speaking from Berlin, where he was conducting German ensembles. “Israel is not exactly everybody’s favorite flavor of the month. But, wherever we have gone, there has always been a positive feeling. Japan, for example, is a country without oil, and it depends very much on the Arabs, but they have always welcomed us.”

The trip he dwells on at greatest length, but through a grey lens of ultimate dismay, was to southern Lebanon, after the start of the 1982 invasion. “We went into Lebanon and played movements from symphonies and a part of the Haydn Trumpet Concerto,” he recalls. “We played in a tobacco field, and we were embraced by the people there.”

His dismay, shared by many Israelis, formed at what became a lengthy occupation.

“Of course, every time Arthur Rubenstein came and played with us was a great moment,” he continued. “The first time going to Germany in 1971 was clearly very important. Of 115 musicians, only two decided they couldn’t go. They had been in concentration camps, and we left it to them. In 1987, we went to Warsaw, and it was really Iron Curtain days. Solidarity was not allowed in Poland.”

His view from the podium has included the surging popularity of Mahler’s music worldwide and lingering debate about Wagner, whose anti-Semitism made the beauty of his music ugly for some. Mehta challenged that unofficial ban in 1981, conducting Die Liebestod, the culminating duet of “Tristan and Isolde.” 

“We had a sort of mini-riot,” he recalled, adding that he plans to try again “pretty soon.”

Mehta makes his opinions known. In this interview, it became clear that his four decades with the IPO have spurred intensities of both devotion to Israel and anger at its politics. He excoriated leaders of Israel’s current government — naming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — for their failure to reverse policy on the settlements and on other matters. “They are isolating themselves from the world as I have never seen it in 40 years,” he said.

“We’re talking about a democracy, right? I can say what I want,” he said, stressing the Israeli-style freedom he feels to speak his mind.

He described a relationship to Israel that started eight years before his 1969 appointment as the IPO’s music director. He was an unemployed, 25-year-old musician in Vienna when a mysterious telegram found him. It invited him to conduct the “Pal. Phil. Orchestra.”

He didn’t recognize short-hand for the Palestine Philharmonic. That was the first name of the group founded by prominent Polish-born violinist Bronislaw Huberman — its debut was led by Toscanini in 1936 — to harbor Jewish musicians threatened by Nazism. Although the name had changed in 1948 to reflect the orchestra’s place in the new state, Mehta’s telegram echoed the past.

Eventually, his directorship of the IPO would combine with that of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He warmly recalls how, in a 1976 performance at the Hollywood Bowl, he led “my two orchestras” together in Berlioz’s “Symphony Fantastique.”

The upcoming benefit honoring Mehta will draw on his closeness to many in the Los Angeles Jewish community, and pianist Yefim Bronfman will perform. Although the IPO is making a U.S. visit, due to scheduling problems, the orchestra won’t stop in Los Angeles. But Mehta will be here to celebrate what American Friends of the IPO executive director Suzanne Ponsot says has been “like a good marriage, a very special, meaningful relationship that has lasted for 40 years.”

On Dec. 9 at the Eli and Edythe Broad Stage in Santa Monica, the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra Los Angeles Gala 2009 honoring Zubin Mehta will include a conversation with Mehta and performance by Yefim Bronfman on piano, hosted by Irwin Winkler. To receive an invitation for this gala evening, call (310) 445-8406 or e-mail {encode=”events@afipo.org” title=”events@afipo.org”}.

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