September 23, 2019

Q&A with Zubin Mehta on Making Music After a Historic War

When the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), conducted by Zubin Mehta, played at Walt Disney Concert Hall in October, it was part of a farewell tour for the 81-year-old maestro, who will retire in October 2019.

Born in India and music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra from 1962 to 1978, Mehta is much attached to L.A. and has a home here. Earlier this year, the Journal caught up with him in the Republic of Georgia, where he conducted an IPO performance. He reflected on his experience organizing a victory concert for the Six-Day War, visiting the Western Wall with Abba Eban, and more.

Jewish Journal: This summer was the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, at the conclusion of which you performed a concert in 1967. How did that come about?

Zubin Mehta: I went there on a spur of the moment with my colleague [pianist and conductor] Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pré [a cellist whom Barenboim married at the Western Wall on June 15, 1967]. We arrived there on the third day. We were there in the middle of the war. We didn’t know it was going to be six days.

JJ: How did the concert come about?

ZM: I was convinced Israel would triumph and decided on the spot to organize a victory concert. I went to Jerusalem to discuss the idea with the legendary mayor of Jerusalem.

JJ: Teddy Kollek?

ZM: Yes. Since that day, Teddy was my friend. … He suddenly inherited two cities. Teddy was loved by the Arabs until the end — until, unfortunately, he lost his last election to successors who then were not loved by the Arabs because they didn’t have the inner
feelings [that Teddy had] that these two people inherit the same ground and they have to live together. Teddy organized the first concert where Jews, Arabs and Christians sat together in Bethlehem, in front of the Church of the Nativity. Teddy passed. I miss him a lot.

“I was convinced Israel would triumph and decided on the spot to organize a victory concert.”

JJ: He was one of a kind.

ZM: I can tell you many stories about what happened to me during the Six-Day War but it’s not important. I was there at the Wailing Wall, which still had slums in front of it, with [Israeli statesman and scholar] Abba Eban, who went there for the first time. I went with him, and there was a journalist who asked him, “Well, what will you call this war?” Abba Eban said, “Maybe we’ll call it the War of Six Days.”

JJ: Right there?

ZM: Yes. We were going to perform the victory concert at the amphitheater of the Hebrew University. It was all set until they found out that it was completely mined. We moved to the Jerusalem Concert Hall.

JJ: What else do you recall from those six days in June?

ZM: I was the first civilian — not only foreigner — to cross the Mandelbaum Gate [a former checkpoint between the Israeli and Jordanian sectors of Jerusalem]. The soldier told me that when I passed through, it was just after Gen. [Chaim] Herzog, who later became president.

General Herzog was a commander of one army there and I visited him, had breakfast with him. Then, in Teddy Kollek’s office, this was before the war was over, the news came that Gen. [Uzi] Narkiss has just conquered the Western Wall. And [David] Ben-Gurion was sitting there in the office. He was not prime minister anymore, and he suddenly said, “This we will never give back!” I was there on this momentous occasion.

JJ: That’s amazing.

ZM: By the way, General Narkiss’ daughter today plays second oboe in the Israel Philharmonic [and] Abba Eban’s son for a long time played clarinet in the orchestra. … It brings the history full circle.

Tom Teicholz is an award-winning journalist, author and producer who lives in Santa Monica.