Zubin Mehta: why I won't play Wagner

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra's director for life insists that Hitler's favourite composer is still banned - for the moment

By Nicola Christie, September 1, 2011
Mehta says he felt immediately at home in Israel - the bustle of Tel Aviv reminded him of his homeland, India

Mehta says he felt immediately at home in Israel - the bustle of Tel Aviv reminded him of his homeland, India

For members of one of the world's largest orchestras, they are rehearsing in a remarkably low-key room, stuck away in a Tel Aviv suburb, devoid of any acoustic support and framed by a big sheet of black fabric to keep the sun out. Moses, Baruch, Uzi and Naomi -- to name a handful of the 105 players - do not seem to notice; they play happily, content enough with Ravel's Bolero and the conducting of their maestro.

Not so the maestro himself. "It's a nightmare in this bunker," reflects Zubin Mehta. "Acoustically, no one can hear what the other is playing. You realise that this isn't our usual home?"

I had not realised. I had thought this ramshackle building - complete with sandwichim and saladim being sold by a single man in the courtyard at lunchtime - was the usual rehearsal headquarters for the Israel Philharmonic Orchesta, and found it charming that such a prestigious group of players were still operating a bit like a kibbutz when not in the public eye.

"It's going to take 10 months - at least - for the renovations of our home, the Mann Auditorium, to be completed," Mehta explains. "And until then we are stuck here, in this building, which was our first office."

The Israel Philharmonic is 75 years old. So is Mehta, who has the title of IPO music director for life. During those 75 years the state of Israel has been born; various aliyahs have brought in hundreds of thousands of new immigrants (in the life of the orchestra this has made itself apparent in the string section, which is overwhelmingly Russian); land has been won and lost, and prime ministers and presidents have come and gone.

And the music plays on. "We need music in this country," explains Mehta, who is not Israeli, not even Jewish, having been born in Mumbai. "We play no matter what is going on. During the 1991 Gulf War we put on concerts every morning - people were under curfew at night because of the bombs. And during the Six-Day War we continued to rehearse for the concert that had been scheduled."

It ended up being the victory concert, performed in Jerusalem at the end of six long days and nights. Mehta was not even meant to be there. He flew in on an El Al plane loaded with ammunition after the original conductor pulled out when he noticed that war was imminent and enemy troops were approaching Israel's borders. "It was a crisis," recalls Mehta, referring not to the pending conflict but the conductor-less concert - "and I had to get there as soon as I could."


Early life: Born Mumbai, April 1936.
Father, violinist Mehli Mehta, founder of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. Mehta left to study in Vienna, aged 18.
Career: Conducting debut in 1958. Made conductor of the Liverpool Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. First conducted the IPO in 1961. Made musical director for life in 1981.
Personal life: Married to actrees Nancy Kovack. Two children from previous marriage to soprano Carmen Lasky. Holds American citizenship.

At the same time Daniel Barenboim and his British sweetheart Jacqueline du Pré were in the air, en route to Jerusalem, oblivious to what was going on. "The three of us arrived at almost the same time and stayed in the basement of the concert hall, which was being used by one of the battalions at the time. I don't remember that we were scared; we were just joking together, as we always did. Fortunately the little war only lasted six days. The audience at the victory concert were local Jerusalem residents who had been hiding in their cellars for days. I'm not sure how good the concert was musically - we weren't exactly prepared! But Daniel played the Beethoven Emperor Piano Concerto and Jackie played the Elgar Cello Concerto."

The city's mayor, Teddy Kollek, kicked off proceedings. "I remember he came on stage and got a standing ovation," says Mehta. "He had been awake, literally, for six days and nights visiting his constituents. He was one of the first Israeli politicians to understand, and be liked by, the Arab population."

Mehta is full of stories. He describes Barenboim's and Du Pré's wedding at the Western Wall - "I was a witness. Daniel pretended I was Jewish because at an Orthodox ceremony a witness needs to be".

Then there was his first visit to Israel, in 1961, at the age of 25. "Daniel and I took a night-time stroll along the bustling Dizengoff Street and I felt immediately at home. People talking and discussing at the same time, it was just like India." And tales from the cities his orchestra has visited, and the visits to come - "my dream is Cairo. After all these years of peace, we must play there".

It is hard to imagine a greater ambassador for the Jewish homeland than this "citizen of the world", as one of his players calls him. The fact that Mehta has led this orchestra for 50 years, spending at least three months of the year in Israel, despite being a self-confessed "gypsy" and despite being called on by every other major orchestra and opera house in the world, says it all. He adores Israel, the people, the dreams, the ambition - and the music-making.

He is not so keen on the current government of Benjamin Netanyahu however. It provides a measly eight per cent of the IPO's budget leaving Mehta and longstanding CEO, Avi Shoshani, "begging" for additional funds, after the money from 26,000 subscribers and ticket sales have been combined. Mehta does not understand it.

"I've tried to get meetings with the administration but they don't want to hear. Don't get me talking about politics," he threatens. "All these settlements. Can't they allocate some of their money for settlement-building to the orchestra? Shimon Peres is one of our few friends - he recognises what we bring. I hope he is not the last great statesman this country has."

This is not to say that Mehta is not hopeful for the future of the country that has, almost, become his own. "I'm naturally optimistic," he says, smiling again. "I believe that peace will be a reality. In my experience the majority of people, on both sides, want peace. But there is a minority of fanatics, on both sides, that make themselves heard, particularly to the media. Israel is a piece of real estate that neither Jew or Arab will let go of; neither will leave these shores. And so they will have to learn to live together."

In the meantime there is a concert to prepare for. A BBC Prom, in London, that requires performances of the Bruch Violin Concerto - with soloist Gil Shaham - Albeniz's Iberia Suite and Rimsky-Korsakov's gorgeous Capriccio Espagnol.

"A very demanding repertoire," says Mehta, whose view on the art of a good rehearsal is the correct allocation of time. "It's knowing when to move on. We have so much repertoire to get through, all the Tchaikovsky concerts we are doing over the European tour dates, the Brahms Piano Concerto, the rest of the Spanish music - the orchestra is playing much of this music for the first time, and they are only just back from their summer break."

There is still no Wagner in the repertoire - it is not even something that Mehta is lobbying for. He has had Holocaust survivors in his orchestra, he knows what Israelis have lived through and grown up with. "While there are still numbers on arms we can't play Wagner here," he says, simply.

But in other areas things move quickly. The establishment of a music school for young Arab musicians in Nazareth and other Arab towns to allow the possibility of Israeli Arabs being admitted into the orchestra. "It's going to take about five to eight years for the work to show; I hope, at least, that more young Arab musicians will make it to audition, not that we would ever take someone out of pity, of course", he quickly adds.

And the increasingly innovative programming that has seen concerts like the Friday afternoon series prove hugely popular. "So many people come. People are wanting to welcome Shabbat in with music," Mehta enthuses.

In December, 75th birthday celebrations will culminate with a series of starry concerts in Israel, featuring guest conductors and soloists such as Kurt and son, Ken, Masur, Pinchas Zukerman and Valery Gergiev.

I ask the players, during a break, what they make of their maestro. A united dreamy look comes into the eyes of each one of them. "He's the builder of our family; our general commander," they say. "He knows what the soloist will do before the soloist himself, he knows when we are going to breathe. We love him - he's one of the family."

Last updated: 10:43am, September 1 2011