Brainwashed from the cradle

Print edition : January 27, 2006

Zubin Mehta's iconic status and renowned programme met with rapturous approval in Chennai and New Delhi.

SARAH HIDDLESTON in Chennai

Zubin Mehta at the Music Academy in Chennai.-SHAJU JOHN

"EACH time I return to India, the last days before the arrival are unbearable, as I cannot wait to land in my own country." After nearly a decade, Zubin Mehta brought the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra to his homeland in December to perform his last tour with it. More than 90 musicians and two tonnes of musical equipment were flown from Germany to present Verdi's Overture from the Force of Destiny, Schubert's Unfinished Symphony No.8 in B minor and Beethoven's Symphony No.5 in C minor in Chennai and New Delhi.

At almost 70, Maestro Mehta is still bowling over audiences with his energy and charisma. His iconic status and renowned programme met with rapturous approval in both Chennai and New Delhi. Critics and contemporaries have been no less adulatory: Kiril Kondrashin, conductor, called him "probably the best conductor alive"; Isaac Stern, violinist, declared him "one of the most gifted conductors I have ever known"; and Jaqueline du Pre, cellist, once said "playing... with Zubin is like riding a magic carpet". At the peak of his career in 1981, Harold C. Schonberg wrote in The New York Times that "his beat must be an orchestra player's delight. It is almost textbook in its motions, moving in fairly large arcs in an unfussy manner... there is something Toscaninian in Mr. Mehta's beat." That year he was made Music Director for life of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the late Karl Bohm, eminent conductor of Beethoven and Wagner, bestowed upon him the Nikisch ring of the Vienna Philharmonic in his will as "the bearer of the Wagner tradition".

Mehta's list of awards and honours is extensive. He is an honorary citizen of both Florence and Tel Aviv and was made an honorary member of the Vienna State Opera in 1997. In 1999, he was presented with the "Lifetime Achievement Peace and Tolerance Award" of the United Nations by Lea Rabin. In 2001, he was created a "Chevalier de La Legion d'Honneur" by President Jacques Chirac in France, and was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in India. In January 2004, the Munich Philharmonic created him Honorary Conductor.

However, he is not without his detractors. There are critics today who feel that in some way Mehta has never fulfilled his promise. British critic Norman Lebrecht once described him as "a genuine talent that has yet to leave a solid mark on the musical map". British critics described some of his performances last year as "out from... [a] glass exhibition case" and as "humdrum". Indeed, one critic of The Guardian described a concert with the Israel Philharmonic as "polished and self-satisfied as an evening of corporate entertainment... he [Mehta] was content to revel in the luxurious sound of his orchestra rather than offer the music any serious interpretative insight."

There are those who consider Mehta at least as much a showman as a conductor, if not "more a master of publicity than a maestro". Indeed, when he was studying in Vienna his teacher Hans Swarowsky found his style so overdramatic that he would hold down Mehta's arms so he was forced to conduct only with his wrists. But Swarowsky is also known to have said Mehta "is a born conductor. There is simply not much more I can teach him. He knows everything." This is not to say that he conducts purely on instinct; he believes that to interpret a piece correctly, it is necessary to understand a composer's entire corpus. When asked by Frontline about his flamboyant style, the maestro simply replied: "It all comes from the music... I do whatever the music demands... What is conducting? Conducting is communication. And what I communicate at the moment is what I feel and what my musicians need."

BORN in Bombay (now Mumbai) on April 29, 1936, Mehta grew up with Western classical music all around him. It is well known that if a child under the age of three is introduced to complex musical syntax, he or she will retain it for the rest of his or her life. In Mehta's case he was "brainwashed... from the cradle" by his father Mehli Mehta, who founded and led the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. At the age of seven he was playing the violin and piano and conducted his father's orchestra for the first time when he was 16 at a rehearsal in which his father was filling in as violinist for Yehudi Menuhin.

At 18, he gave up studying medicine, which his family had hoped would provide him with a secure future, and left to study music at the Akademie fur Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Vienna. There, he was involved with some of the most talented musicians of his generation, including Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern and Daniel Barenboim, a group that was known as the "kosher nostra". Shortly after graduation he won the Liverpool International Conducting Competition in 1958. By his mid-twenties he had already conducted both the Vienna and the Berlin Philharmonics, with both of which he continues to have close ties.

Since then, the maestro has had directorships of many of the great orchestras of the world under his belt. He is credited today with giving the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1962-78) its distinctive rich sound, taming the oft-rebellious New York Philharmonic (1978-85) and persuading the Israel Philharmonic (1977-ongoing) not only to play the anti-Semitic Wagner but to teach it in Israel's universities. He has conducted nearly 2,000 concerts with this ensemble - one of the world's youngest orchestras - on tours spanning five continents. He has used this directorship as an opportunity to have an orchestra ever associated with his name. New York will always have Leonard Bernstein and Berlin Herbert von Karajan, and now Israel Zubin Mehta. As well as being Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera, he is currently Chief Conductor of the Maggio Musicale in Florence, Italy.

THE maestro is also known for playing for more than just music. His close association with Israel runs deeper than its symphony orchestra; he has a professed affinity with its people. As an Indian with a passion for German music, this has made for interesting politics. "It is not politics, it's humanity. I don't campaign for anybody," he once said. During the Gulf War, fearful that Tel Aviv would be bombed, he flew out to show his support for Israel by playing a series of concerts. Similarly, having always advocated diplomatic ties between India and Israel, he conducted the Israel Philharmonic in Mumbai and New Delhi in November 1994, bridging a political gap that had prevented them performing there for three decades. In August 1999, his love of German music brought the Israel Philharmonic and the Bavarian State Orchestras together for a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection) at what was a concentration camp in Weimar, Germany.

He has also made many philanthropic gestures unconnected with Israel. He has done so since his very first days in Vienna when as a student he conducted a student orchestra for Hungarian refugees. In 1988, he conducted a historic concert with the New York Philharmonic and State Symphony Orchestra of the Soviet Ministry of Culture in Moscow's Gorky Park. In June 1994 he performed the Mozart Requiem with the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in the ruins of the Bosnian national library in remembrance of all those who died in the war and to raise funds for those still living.

He has also remained closely connected with his country of origin. Indeed, he still retains his Indian passport. He dedicated the concerts in Chennai and New Delhi to those who suffered in the 2004 tsunami. After the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, he had raised funds for the victims. While on a tour to India with the New York Philharmonic back in 1984, he donated his fee to a Parsi charity in Mumbai and the orchestra donated its fee from one concert to the Prime Minister's Relief Fund. In an interview to Frontline given in New York shortly afterwards, he said: "People like me don't have power... What I have is a certain influence and I use it the best I can to benefit my India."

INDIA is, Mehta believes, one of many countries in the East producing talented classical musicians in the Western sense. And instead of leaving the country he believes they should stay here in India and study. There are those who believe Mehta, like many compatriots, has not done enough to nurture talent in his own country, unlike the Japanese or the Chinese who surround themselves with proteges collected from their home countries. It is possible that in these countries, where there has been a discontinuity with their own traditions, Western classical music has taken root more easily, whereas India has always had its Carnatic and Hindustani traditions. Now, however, Mehta has started a foundation in his father's name in Mumbai and hopes "it will be the first real school of Western music". This should not, however, "replace what goes on here with Indian music, which is unbelievable".

In contrast, he has major concerns about the future of Western classical music in the West. Dwindling audiences and decreasing funds are increasing sources of worry. The United States, he says, with the exception of New York and Los Angeles, increasingly resorts to gimmicks to attract people to the concert hall. Italy, the birthplace of Western arts, he says, is suffocating its own culture. "Mr. Berlusconi's government cuts subsidies month by month. We had to cancel the opening opera in May. We had already cancelled an opera in December. It is a travesty... literature, painting or music, it all started in Italy in the Renaissance," he told Frontline. He criticised the United Kingdom and France also on this count. Only middle Europe, the heartland of the Viennese school he espouses, remains constant in terms of subsidy and audience.

If Western classical music needs to look East, what better role model for aspiring artists is there than the boy from Bombay who grew up to be the idol of India? Beethoven once wrote "music ought to create and fan the fire of the spirit of mankind". Zubin Mehta - charismatic, intelligent, passionate - is doing just that.

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