Renowned conductor Zubin Mehta says he wants to perform in Ramallah and respects the Indian government for staying away from an Israel-like settlements policy in Kashmir
The Ehsaas-e- Kashmir concert has made this trip to India perhaps the most memorable for conductor Zubin Mehta. In Mumbai, where he conducted two more concerts, he spoke to The Hindu about his political views. Though he has been closely associated with Israel and is Music Director for Life of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, Mr. Mehta said he supported the call for a Palestinian state and opposed the Israeli policy of settlements on disputed land. He even said he would love to conduct music in Cairo and Ramallah. Excerpts:
Was this visit to India more special because of the Kashmir concert?
The visit to Kashmir was very special. At the back of my mind, I thought I want to play music. I can’t bring peace but I can stand above it all. That’s what I would like to tell our fellow artists. Don’t get mixed up in the local issues. We should ignore them and go straight to the people. Speak to them, play for them. That’s what I thought I was doing and I was partially correct. My condition was Hindus and Muslim should sit together for an hour and a half listening to music. It could start some kind of healing. Politics does not come into this at all but unfortunately it did, though not provoked by me.
Do you agree with the general manager of the Bavarian State Orchestra who said they were misled by the German embassy into thinking they would play for the public, not a restricted audience?
That is his personal opinion. I don’t think so. Even in music concerts in Mumbai and different parts of the world, seats are reserved for sponsors. Once the music started, we were in heaven. The orchestra played with all its heart. The Kashmiri musicians were adorable, we learnt from them. We got the music three days earlier and sent it to them but when we played, there was no problem.
You have played earlier in conflict zones like Sarajevo. You have built bridges with Arabs in Israel.
Don’t ever underestimate the power of music. Not just in peace concerts, I experience it all the time. Just look at the great collection of music that our masters have left us. We happen to have a formidable museum of sound. Just imagine the world without it — it would be a psychological and spiritual catastrophe. See what happened in Kashmir. First they started shouting that they don’t want music. Then they went on to have their own concert, they didn’t disagree with it then.
Well at least eventually it led to a whole dialogue being started, that’s a good by-product.
Did you feel hurt to be judged by such groups in India because of your closeness to Israel?
I think people were misinformed. I have been very close to the Israeli Philharmonic for over 44 years. I have seen it go through ups and downs and supported it during times of crisis. Most of its musicians have been chosen by me. What people don’t know is that I have often been deeply critical of the politics of the present government. There is a school in Israel called Hand in Hand which I support. There Arab and Jewish students study together on a daily basis. Young children speaking each other’s language. Most Arab Israelis speak Hebrew but not the other way around. It’s about time that changed.
What is your position on Palestine and the Israeli policy of settlements?
I am a great friend of Israel. It is one of the few democracies in the region. But I am a great supporter of the need for a Palestinian state. Neither Israel nor the call for a Palestinian state is going to disappear. So people need to move forward. I think Israelis needed to show greater wisdom and charity towards Palestinians. The settlements on disputed land are a complete deterrent to going ahead. The Foreign Minister of the U.S. had brokered peace [talks]. But three days before the first talks, Israel announced more settlements. Is this the way forward if you want peace? I respect the Indian government for the fact that there are no settlements in Kashmir.
Can politics and art really ever be separated?
They don’t need to be separated, they can complement each other. In 1976 during the U.S. Bicentennial, as the Los Angeles Philharmonic we travelled to many east European countries. We got such a positive response. We felt what people could not say, came across in their applause.
In Romania, the audience came and hugged the musicians so hard, we thought a violin would break.
Is there a country where you really want to perform?
I dream of conducting in Cairo and Amman. I had asked the Israeli Prime Minister in 1978 after the Camp David agreement to send us to Cairo but it didn’t happen. I would love to perform in Arab countries, most of all in Ramallah. When I go there on a visit, the first thing they ask is when are you coming here to perform?
You had the courage to conduct to conduct Richard Wagner — a favourite of the Nazi regime — in Israel once but the performance had to stop. Do you think it is time he is accepted in Israel?
I think he will be accepted in time. Wagner was not just a genius, he was a musical revolution. His legacy has been inherited by composers in the 20th century. The Israeli Philharmonic does play the music of those he influenced. But there are still many in Israel who bear the marks of concentration camps. So whether to play Wagner is not an intellectual argument, it is an emotional argument. It has to come from within.
There were demonstrations against your concert in Carnegie Hall by activists calling for a cultural boycott of Israel. How did you feel about that?
I don’t mind people expressing their views or opposition but they interrupted the concert. They started singing in the middle of the concert and that was wrong. They were not supported by the public. The next day the London Times wrote an editorial against it.
Do you think in this fast-paced world, the audience for western classical music is dying?
Not at all. There is a strong audience particularly in central Europe. In Israel there are many concerts for young people. Once in the U.S., I conducted a concert for 800,000 people at Central Park.
Finally, you’ve always had a soft corner for Mumbai. Do you miss it?
I have never left. I cry about the ugliness of some parts; the lack of planning, the mushrooming of slums and skyscrapers. But my house in Mumbai still stands.