On Sunday, the famed Bronfman Auditorium, the largest concert hall in Tel Aviv and home to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, resonated with one of Gustav Mahler’s most popular and successful works — Symphony Number 2 — better-known as Resurrection. The five-movement symphony talks about the beauty of afterlife. It opens with a symphonic poem called Funeral Rites, asks questions about life after death and goes on to remember the joyous times that life offered, their significance and concludes with an intense hope for an eternal regeneration, a sort of rebirth after death has been dealt with. Ace music maestro, 83-year-old Zubin Mehta, chose Mahler’s legendary and large work to take his final bow after a 50-year stint with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which bid goodbye to its “music director for life”. It was apt as Mehta’s retirement is unlikely to make sense quickly. Even to him, we are sure.
Addressing the audience, Mumbai-born Mehta said, “Among all the things I was able to achieve in the past 50 years, there is one thing I could not accomplish. I cannot speak Hebrew. I am sorry for that. Let me express it with music now.” He followed it with Piano Concerto Number 2 by Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. An emotional Mehta finished with “goodbye to my family”. He will be succeeded by 30-year-old Lahav Shani.
In the life of western classical music, Zubin Mehta has, and will, remain a significant figure. Not just for being one of the greatest music conductors in the world with a reputation for interpreting the music of the Romantic-era titans like Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Beethoven among others but also because he never shied away from taking a political position or voicing his views on Israel, war and other matters. Be it performing with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in a war-torn Sarajevo where he conducted a charity concert amid the ruins of the National Library and presented Mozart’s Requiem, his Mass to commemorate the dead and lost, or in 1978 asking the then Israeli PM Menachem Begin to send the Orchestra to Cairo as a gesture of goodwill and the controversial concert in Kashmir which happened among much criticism, politics and music were never more intertwined. He also conducted a group of Israeli and German musicians near the site of the Nazis’ Buchenwald concentration camp in 1999. Then there was playing Wagner in Israel in 1981.where the German musician’s music and ideas are considered anti-Semitic (it never happened again). Before he began, Mehta told the audience that anybody who felt uncomfortable could leave the room. He had just begun when a Holocaust survivor walked in front of the podium and bared his stomach. ‘Play Wagner over my body,’ he screamed.
“I’m sorry that we are not playing Wagner (anymore), but it will happen again one day. But one has to consider the emotions of the people. People are still living with numbers on their arms. They don’t want to be transported back to the days of terror. One can understand that. As for Kashmir, we didn’t do anything wrong except make music there. I’m glad we did it. I would do it all over again,” he had told this reporter in an interview.
It was also interesting that unlike the other Israeli musicians of the Orchestra, Mehta has been able to travel to the Palestinian territories. He often visited Ramallah in the West Bank. Israelis could not teach beyond the West Bank. But in the town of Nazareth and Shwaram, about 150 young students study Arabic music and are coached by Arab teachers. They are supervised by members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Mehta also has a music school at the University of Tel Aviv, which has about eight Arab students, who are being taught full-time by the Philharmonic members. “My dream is to have an Israeli-Arab track in the Israel Philharmonic. And it will happen one day. We have an Arabic soloist. A very fine Arabic pianist plays with us sometimes,” Mehta had said. He has often rued how some great artistes didn’t visit Israel because they did not agree with the politics of Israel.
Born and raised in Mumbai in a Gujarati family, Mehta always wanted to be a musician. His parents persuaded him to become a doctor and he even studied two semesters of medicine at St Xavier’s college but left midway. His father Mehli Mehta founded the Bombay Symphony Orchestra, which was hardly a well-knit orchestra. It comprised Parsi amateurs, Goan folk musicians and some members of the Navy band. Mehta was shocked when he heard a real orchestra play in Vienna for the first time. It was the Vienna Philharmonic, which remains one of the world’s greatest orchestras. He chanced upon Israel when he was filling in for the ill conductor. He stayed on.
The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra appointed Mehta as music adviser in 1969 and music director for life in 1981. He was music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1962 to 1978 and of the New York Philharmonic from 1978 to 1991.
Mehta’s musical career will be remembered for his immense knowledge, charisma on stage and interpretation of some great music with much intensity. Whenever he got on that rostrum (for an orchestra) or in the pit (for an opera), he could breathe in rhythm with the musicians. “We have to have the knowledge, technical command and control to convince 100 musicians of our interpretation,” he had said. The baron of the baton has retired, at the pinnacle of his career. Mahler, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven will always be thankful for him. So are we.