Wednesday, 15 October 2014

A FEW WORDS WITH ZUBIN MEHTA, Music Director For Life of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra


On 11 November 2014, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) gives its Singapore début in a concert at the Mastercard Theatre of Marina Bay Sands. Leading the orchestra is its Music Director for life, the eminent India-born conductor ZUBIN MEHTA, who has distinguished himself in the world’s great concert stages, including The Three Tenors concert in Rome and Los Angeles, and Zhang Yimou’s spectacular production of Puccini’s Turandot in the Forbidden City, Beijing.

I had a chance to speak with the Maestro speaks for a short telephone interview for THE PEAK (below).

As lifestyle magazines go, there is little space for details which music-lovers are interested in, but here is a transcript of the full interview.

You had originally planned to study medicine but then switched to music. How did this come about?

My parents wanted me to be a doctor, but I defaulted! I attended pre-medical classes in Bombay, but chose to be a musician instead. My parents were very supportive. My father Mehli Mehta (left) was a violinist, founder of the Bombay String Quartet and Bombay Symphony Orchestra, and for 35 years the conductor of the American Youth Symphony Orchestra in Los Angeles. He was a most important influence, and arranged for me to study at the Vienna Academy of Music in 1954.

Vienna had a compact and closely knit community of musicians which was conducive for the pursuit of music. I studied piano and double bass, and orchestral conducting in the class of Hans Swarowsky.

Being an Asian studying music in Vienna during the 1950s, essentially a world community dominated by Europeans, must have been a daunting prospect. Did you face any obstacles being accepted as a musical equal, coming from a different culture?

There were not many Asians in Vienna during those days - only a few Japanese students - and I was the only one from India. I felt no anxiety or discrimination, and was accepted whole-heartedly by the Viennese musical community.

My first concert as a conductor was organised by the Jeunnese Musicales, which had started in Belgium. The first professional engagement was with the Tonkünstler Orchestra of Vienna, which paid me a little bit. It was an all-Brahms concert with the First Piano Concerto and First Symphony.  The soloist was Alfred Brendel. I met him in a bookshop and asked him if he would like to play.

The next concert was all-Schoenberg: the First Chamber Symphony and Pierrot Lunaire.  If you had talent, you will be engaged again. I conducted that orchestra for two seasons before being asked to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic. About (the late Italian conductor) Claudio Abbado, we spent two years in Vienna and became friends for life. We never had an ugly word with each other.

Your close relationship with Israel and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra dates from the 1960s, a period of uncertainty when the existence of Israel as a nation was under threat. Could you describe how this bond was formed?

I first conducted the IPO in 1961. I had been asked to substitute for the great Hungarian-American conductor Eugene Ormandy. Apparently the orchestra had heard of me, and I immediately accepted! The concert programme included Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements and Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony, and that was how it all started. In 1967, my close friends Daniel Barenboim and his wife Jacqueline Du Pré (left) were there for the Victory Concert at the end of the Six Day War which I conducted. Barenboim performed Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto on the piano, Du Pré played Schumann’s Cello Concerto, and we finished off with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

In 1969, I was made Music Director and later Music Director for life. This is not a contract, but an honour. I could be terminated next week!

You have conducted in Singapore on at least three occasions, with the New York Philharmonic at the National Stadium (1984) and in front of the City Hall steps (1989), and more recently with the Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino at the Esplanade (2005). What sort of memories does Singapore hold for you?

Only very good and positive ones!  I love your city for its order, organisation, discipline and cleanliness. My dear friend Shalom Ronly-Riklis, former Associate Conductor of the IPO, had conducted in Singapore on many occasions and told me all about Singapore. When I finally came, and coming from India, I could not believe this was Asia!

My first concert in 1984 was at a small hall, I think the Victoria Concert Hall. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew attended that concert, and I told him to please build a really big concert hall for Singapore. Now you have the Esplanade Concert Hall, and conducting there in 2005 was a wonderful experience.   

Q: China has now accepted Western classical music with open arms, with the formation of symphony orchestras, new concert halls and millions of students studying music. Do you think that same “revolution” will take place in India, the world’s second most populous nation?

It is slowly happening now in India. We have a professional symphony orchestra (Symphony Orchestra of India) in Bombay and the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation (founded in 1995, above) that teaches young children to play Western instruments. We will see the results in the next generation.

Q: Music and the arts can be a force of change for the better in world affairs. Does the Israel Philharmonic have a role to play in helping to resolve present Israel and Palestine conflict?      

We have to try our best. My hope is for the orchestra to play in Ramallah, Palestine when it becomes a country, which will be very soon. We will go and perform as a sign of friendship and peace.

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