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Mehta bows out, but it’s not goodbye

'After 50 years I think an orchestra should be handled by a good successor — hopefully.'

    Zubin Mehta performing with the Vienna Philharmonic
    Zubin Mehta performing with the Vienna Philharmonic (Photo DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images)

    Zubin Mehta’s presence is the jewel in the crown for the British Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s fundraising gala this month. The celebrated Indian-born conductor, 81, will retire from his post with the orchestra in 2019 — when they will have clocked up half a century and well over 3,000 concerts.

    Mehta has been associated with the IPO ever since becoming its music adviser in 1969; he was appointed music director in 1977 and music director for life in 1981. It is not only the orchestra that has inspired him to stay so long, he says: “It’s combined with my love for the country and its people,” he says, “although I don’t get along too well with today’s politicians. Living here day by day and through times of crises, I’m very close to the Israeli people.”

    The orchestra relies heavily on fundraising, he points out: “The London gala is a very important function in honour of the orchestra, which has hardly any support from the Israeli government, but depends year after year on our wonderful box office returns, and for 30 per cent we have to go begging.”

    The gala, at the Savoy, includes a performance by the violinist Julian Rachlin and the pianist Khatia Buniatishvili as well as a reception, dinner and silent auction. “We are very grateful!” Mehta declares.

    The event particularly aims to support Mehta’s legacy in the IPO’s education and community programmes.

    Among these, Keynote is a multifaith initiative to promote mutual respect and tolerance among Jewish, Christian and Muslim citizens in Israel; Sulamot seeks to bring social change through music for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and with special needs; and Mifne, building on Mehta’s multicultural ideals, sets out to forge ties via music between Jewish and Arabic young people in the mixed populations of northern Israel.

    “I have my own programme in the north of Israel, teaching Israeli Arabs classical music,” Mehta says. “There’s a lot of talent and the Philharmonic musicians go and oversee that programme. My dream is to have eventually an Israeli Arab playing in the Philharmonic.” He also points to the work of the Buchman Mehta School of Music, which he co-founded at Tel Aviv University: “We teach young Israelis, foreigners and some Israeli Arabs orchestral techniques.”

    The idea is to redress the balance of conventional conservatoire training, which tends to focus on solo playing: “Only a trickle of one per cent of conservatoire students will become soloists,” Mehta says. “The majority will play in orchestras, if they are good enough.”

    Stepping down from the IPO, he says, was “a personal decision. I can’t say I woke up one morning and thought ‘That’s it’, but after 50 years I think an orchestra should be handled by a good successor — hopefully.”

    For now, though, his schedule remains packed: “There is still lots of work to do: 2019 is full of tours of Europe and South America.

    “My last concert will be that October, when there’ll be a little festival for me to say adieu, with lots of friends playing as soloists.”

    He has, however, no intention of retiring from anything else.

    “I will still be conducting in other places,” he says.

    “I don’t consider myself an old person. Another two years, who knows — but at the moment I feel very young and strong!”

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