Moment of Epiphany

Despite a hectic schedule and interruptions due to phone calls, he says, “Hoon ahiyan opera perform karu chhau, ghanaaj rehearsals chhe. Tamo hamnaaj be tran cheez poochho jaldi se” (I am performing an opera here and have several rehearsals. Ask me 2 or 3 questions quickly) in Parsi Gujarati, his mother tongue! Excerpts from an interview with maestro Zubin Mehta:

You are the Music Director of Life of the Israel Philharmonic despite being a non-Israeli and non-Jewish. How did that happen?

I went there as a substitute for a famous conductor in 1961. I must have had enough success for them to call me back. Then in 1969, they made me the music director. I shall retire on my own request in 2019, after 50 years of my conducting them. I don’t think there has been any conductor in classical music’s history, who has been a music director for 50 years!

What next after retirement?

Well, look, I am a young man! I have a contract with La Scala in Milan for the next three years, with the Berlin State Opera for the same period, and an open invitation to go back anytime I want. My calendar is quite full until 2021.

You rendered ‘Happy Birthday’ in the styles of various composers for the King and Queen of Spain in 2010. Why this particular rendition and how would you differentiate between styles?

I found this composition written in different styles. It was not easy, we had to rehearse a lot. The Queen appreciated it tremendously.

Your fusion with Kashmiri traditional musicians during your 2014 Kashmir trip, how did you fuse such starkly diverse styles into a singular symphony?

Our musicians enjoyed it. They sent us the music, we prepared it in Munich, we came to Kashmir and played it with them… I will never forget that! The whole concert in general, of having Hindus and Muslims sit together symbolically for one concert… I would love to visit Kashmir again and play in a bigger venue where more people can come. I will play in Kashmir anytime! There was opposition from the separatists.

The German ambassador was involved in the concert and also roped in a lot of German companies like Lufthansa and friends of mine from Mumbai donated heavily. It was a high-point event in my life! The gardens that emperor Jehangir built have been repaired for the people of Srinagar to enjoy now.

How do you relate to Indian classical music?

I love it! I am a big fan of Pt. Ravi Shankar, Ustad Allarakha, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan and Pt. Hari Prasad Chaurasia.

Unlike in the East where there are drum solos, such as in Indian and Persian music, do you feel that the role of percussion is relatively less explored in Western classical music?

Well, you know we have complex rhythms in Western classical music also. But the rhythms that are improvised on the tabla by artistes such as Ustad Allarakha are completely different from the Western ones that are all written down. Indian music is improvised. Our musicians fly into space if they’re in the mood. Ustad Zakir Hussain is going to play with me in Israel in October. Anushka Shankar just played with me with the Berlin Philharmonic.

So Western classical music is flexible for fusion?

Yes, but it is not always stylistically successful. But Raviji’s sitar concerto is greatly appreciated in the West. Anushka played it with me in Los Angeles, Berlin, Florence and Israel. She is paying her father great homage.

Your memories of Mumbai. Do you long to come back?

If you put me in a car in Bombay blindfolded, I can drive anywhere! (laughs). I don’t know the new Bombay, but yes, south Bombay-Colaba, the Fort area….!

Your two profound inspirations — legendary conductors Toscanini and Furtwangler — had diverse philosophies. How have they influenced your style and thought process?

They were sincere and honest to the music they performed. Toscanini was rigid in what he thought the composer wanted, while Furtwangler was a little flexible and looked between the notes to see what the real intention of the composer was; but both are valid. We, the next generation, have profited from that and borrow from both.

Have you interpreted and transformed the work of a great master and therefore followed in Furtwangler’s footsteps?

We all think that we are performing the work with the composer’s intention. We can be inspired by the writing of Furtwangler or from his recordings, but we have to put our own stamp and be as honest as we can.

Have you unravelled the mind of a composer or resurrected his personality through his music?

The more we perform, say Beethoven’s Eroica, the third symphony, the more secrets we find in them. Don’t forget, we perform with great orchestras, which have great musicians. They also have their interpretive ideas. Sometimes we have to be flexible. It’s a give and take between conductor and orchestra.

How do you connect with musicians of diverse temperaments within the orchestra and integrate them into a whole? Does music do the job or do you have to understand each member personally?

Not each member. I know my Israel Philharmonic. I have engaged each one of them personally. I try to know each one of them, although it’s not easy to know 110! When we rehearse, we know each other very well, believe me.

What has been your deepest spiritual experience through music?

These great pieces that we perform — a Mahler or a Brahms symphony — they all have their intimate moments. Sometimes on a tour in a strange place, suddenly a miraculous musical experience happens that we had not planned for, and we are grateful for that, because conducting is a very mystical experience. Sometimes it just goes on as a normal interpretation and sometimes you go to lofty heights without even planning it.

‘We are keepers of a heritage’

“I am a great admirer of Alarmel Valli. , one of India’s great dancers. When she dances, it is like poetry!” he says. Although he is called the ‘Citizen of the World,’ he is fiercely Indian. At 81, Zubin Mehta stuns the world with his volcanic zest, fiery passion for life and for the works of Europe’s towering classical giants that he brings alive. Known as Western classical music’s greatest living legend, ‘Maestro’ as he is fondly addressed, he has led a life as glorious as Beethoven’s 9th, one of his favourite symphonies.

Born in colonial Mumbai, then ‘Bombay,’ into a middle-class Parsi family, his father Mehli Mehta, an accountant, bathed young Zubin’s soul with the music of the great masters. Also an erudite concert violinist, Mehli founded the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. After a brief foray into a pre-medical course, Zubin travelled to Vienna for higher studies in music and rose to become one of the leading conductors of Western classical music at an early age.

Apart from the association with several great philharmonic orchestras such as Vienna and Berlin (for over 50 years), Montreal, New York and Los Angeles, Zubin Mehta has been the Music Director for Life of the world-renowned Israel Philharmonic with which he has performed over 3,000 concerts.

Speaking about the great works in which he saw a part of his being, Mehta says that although he has rendered innumerable operas and symphonies from his vast repertoire spanning 400 years, among his ten 10 favourite operas are Don Giovanni, Tosca of Puccini, Othello and Verdi’s Don Carlo that he is currently performing in Florence. “This is a museum of masterpieces and we are the museum keepers of the heritage,” he observes.

The maestro emphasises that although he is not a composer himself, having conducted the works of all the giants throughout his historic career, makes him “feel at home with all their heritage.”

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Printable version | Sep 21, 2021 12:06:37 PM |

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