Zubin Mehta: ‘Israel has lost Europe. Now it is losing America’


They stand on ladders, sweating. A group of young artists, armed with brushes and paints, are refurbishing the mural on the western side of the Haychal Hatarbut - the culture hall - in Tel Aviv. It is the end of March and the summer is still a way away but in the adjacent garden you can already see Tel Aviv girls taking their dogs for a walk in very short shorts, and the guys who pass by occasionally lift their eyes up from their smartphones to glance at them.

As Zubin Mehta strolls casually and powerfully in the direction of Haychal Hatarbut, everyone stops to look at him. He is not tall but looks like an enormous Egyptian idol, wrapped up in a designer jacket. Even for those who do not recognise the Musical Director of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, it is clear that he is some kind of giant.

"Why are they drawing a new mural? What happened to the old one?" he asks me out of curiosity. Before I have a chance to answer, he already has an anecdote to share, about a walk he had outside of the Haychal Hatarbut, with the mayor named Shlomo "Chich" Lahat. This story has neither an end nor a point, because just one minute later the maestro focuses on the purple climbers in the adjacent garden and begins another story about the plant that he planted outside the opera house in Florence.

This is Zubin Mehta in a nutshell. One of the most famous and celebrated musicians in the world, so popular that he even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And yet he is a restless and borderless soul, who wanders between worlds and jobs, a workaholic, gets bored very quickly and who does not understand why anyone would be interested in him at all.

We sit in the conductor's lavish room in the Haychal Hatarbut, and start talking. Soon, there is a knock at the door and a trumpet player walks into the room.

"Hello maestro, I wanted to give you a musical score, do you think you'll have time to go over it?"


"Ok, then can I leave it with you?"

"No, I'm flying tonight to Italy."

"So can you take it with you to read on the plane?"


"Ok, so maybe next time."

Mehta says that budding composers bring scores to him "endlessly. They're of course welcome to do so, and when I have time I do look at them. The problem is that most of the pieces that I'm given are about the Holocaust. When I look at the music it's usually outdated, because the topic is not the only important thing. There has to be also a purpose to music".

Since we are already talking about the Holocaust, when can we hear Wagner at the Heychal Hatarbut?

"I hope soon. But we don't even talk about it. It's a shame. But there are still people with numbers on their arms from the concentration camps, and we must honour them and not offend their sensibilities.

"But it's a black hole in our Israeli music education, as an orchestra, and also as a public. Wagner is almost my second language. I've performed his pieces in so many places in the world except in Israel, and it hurts me."

We met less than a week after the election of the twentieth Knesset, and Mehta was not very satisfied by the outcome, despite the fact that he has never been involved in politics.

"You know that I never voted in my whole life?" he says. "I have an Indian citizenship, but because I don't live there, I don't vote. I have a green card in the US, though I can't vote."

You've lived here for decades, you've won so many prizes and titles, and you're the only non-Israeli to have received the Israeli Prize. How is it that you still don't have an Israeli citizenship, and the right to vote?

"No, no, I'm Indian! I don't want any other citizenship. I'm married to an American and I could have received US citizenship, but I gave it up. I'm not Israeli, despite the fact that in my heart I'm one of you. And because of that, Israel's isolation is so worrying. Israel is isolated on a daily basis. I think that Israel lost Europe already. Now it's on the verge of losing the United States. I read in the papers that American support for Israel has declined. Half of the Americans do not support Israel. It wasn't always like that."

The orchestra is affected by the international disapproval of Israel - but, as Mehta explains, it suffers for other reasons too.

"There are musicians who don't want to come for political reasons. Some don't come because we don't pay enough. But thank God there are enough very good artists who do come."

Are there musicians who tell him clearly, "Maestro Mehta, the money is fine, but I am not willing to come to Israel for political reasons"?

"Some have said that to my face. Years ago a certain musician refused to perform here, and he spoke exactly like the Hamas, and that was even before the existence of Hamas! He said that as long as Israel didn't give back all the territory to the Arabs, he would not perform here. I said to him that that meant that his unborn grandchildren would also never arrive here. I did not invite him ever again. It's a shame. He was an outstanding conductor."

Mehta was born in Bombay in 1936, the son of a violinist who founded the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. His parents hoped that he would become a doctor, but he dreamt of becoming a conductor of symphony orchestras - or a cricket player. He quit medical school in India, and at 18 moved to post-war Vienna to learn conducting at the Austrian Academy of Music.

The dream quickly became reality. At 25, Mehta had already conducted in the orchestras of Berlin and Vienna. He was appointed the director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and later, of the orchestras of Los Angeles, New York, Florence and Munich.

Since 1969, he has served at the Israeli Philharmonic. When the Six-Day War erupted in 1967, he cancelled concerts in Paris and Budapest and attempted to fly from New York to Israel to be with his musicians. When his flight landed in Rome because of the war, he boarded an El Al cargo flight. "We were only myself, the head of the Bank of Israel, and a reporter from Newsweek."

James Levine of the New York Opera was also born in 1936 and next April he and Mehta will celebrate their eightieth birthday with a concert in Bombay.

"I still don't know who will pay for it, or what we will pay, but it will be very exciting. With us will be Pinhas Zuckerman, the pianist Denis Matsuev, and Andrea Bocelli. We didn't talk yet about what we'll be playing. Bocelli will sing popular arias, but not pop."

On the recent Israeli election, Mehta says: "I'm not a prophet, but with such a large majority, Netanyahu can do what he wants. Now let's see what kind of job he will do. I don't know. But in August and September, when we go on tour in Europe, we will know for sure."

His affinity with Israel stems not only from music. Mehta has an Israeli son, Uri, who was born out of wedlock in Israel. "It was probably awful for my wife, Nancy, who was forced to hear it first from me, then from the newspapers, about a passing love affair that brought a son to the world. She stood strong and didn't leave me," he said in his autobiography. "When Uri was a little boy we couldn't communicate because I didn't speak Hebrew and he didn't speak English, but now we have a very strong relationship," he says. "He studies now at a college in Rehovot, and yesterday we had lunch together."

Mehta's first wife was the Canadian singer Carmen Lasky. In addition to Uri, he has four other children - a son and a daughter from his first marriage, a daughter from his second marriage, and another daughter who was also born out of wedlock.

Nine years ago, Mehta wrote that his dream was to see an Arab-Israeli or Palestinian musician play in the Israeli Philharmonic. Today, he's convinced, more than ever, that it's going to happen soon. "We have a school in the north, in Shfar'am. More than 200 students study there, and some of the children are going to study this year at the Buhman-Mehta school in Tel Aviv University. The day is not far away when you will see an Arab playing with the Israeli Philharmonic."

Any more dreams? "Perhaps I'll get to the age of 120, and then I'll be able to play Wagner in Tel Aviv."

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