It’s the early 1970s: a friend (also from India) and I have sprinted to the Royal Festival Hall in London with our tickets in our hands. They are cheap—as students we can’t afford anything better—but they are precious. Precious because they are to a Zubin Mehta concert. We are driven more by national pride than any deep knowledge of western classical music, and when we reach the auditorium, we see that we aren’t the only Indians who have been pulled by the magic of Mehta’s name. More than 40 years later, I have my ticket to another Zubin Mehta concert, this time in Mumbai. My knowledge of music has grown with my waistline, and I can now afford pricier tickets. But even if I couldn’t, nothing could stop me from being present at a concert where ‘Apro Zubin’ wields the baton.
Between these two concerts, only a few things have changed: the handsome, flamboyant young man who strode the London stage has given way to the still handsome, still flamboyant older man who walks now with a more deliberate step to all the world’s concert podiums. His concerts still sell out—in Mumbai, people queue all night to get their two tickets (No one is allowed more). Incidentally, ‘older’ is the right word to use for Mehta, although on April 29 he will be 80. But who will dare use the word ‘old’ for someone whose only concession to age is that he has refused all offers to be permanently associated with any one orchestra? This actually means he travels even more: Vienna one day, New York or LA soon after, London or Israel or Germany or France or...you need a map of the world to keep track of his concerts.
When you consider the fact that he made his conducting debut in 1958, you realise he has been wielding the baton for an incredible 58 years! His conducting career began as assistant conductor with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, but it really took off in 1961, when he was appointed music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. A year later, he took on concurrently the job of music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic—becoming, at 26, not only the youngest conductor of an international orchestra, but also the youngest ever to be in charge of two international orchestras. This would have been an astonishing achievement for anyone; for an Indian, it was unimaginable.
You only have to consider the place of western classical music in our country. Parsis (themselves a tiny group) listen to it, as do members of the Christian community in Goa and maybe Kerala, and some westernised elite in Calcutta and elsewhere. Of this small group, an even smaller percentage actually plays a musical instrument. Unlike many other countries, our radio plays no western classical music, and very little of it is available in music stores. It’s like expecting a writer to emerge from a place with no culture of reading, and where only a few books are available. And it’s like expecting not just a writer, but a Nobel prize-winning one at that.
Mehta with pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim and cellist Jacqueline Du Pre
How on earth did it happen? Zubin began with the right genes: Mehli Mehta was an accomplished violinist and was the founding conductor of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. (By sheer serendipity, Zubin was born on April 29, 1936, on the first anniversary of the orchestra). As a result, he was surrounded by music (“brainwashed with classical music from the cradle” is how he describes it), and he grew up listening to members of the orchestra rehearsing at home. A tutor was assigned to teach him violin and piano but, he says, he would bunk these classes whenever he could to go play cricket with friends. Yet he did assist Mehli Mehta during rehearsals.
When it came to choosing a career—and this is important to note when discussing the place of western classical music in India—his family’s and his choice was medicine: a career in music wasn’t considered viable. Luckily, Mendelssohn’s violin concerto intervened. As Mehta tells the story, he was filling in for his father one day at rehearsals when the orchestra was playing the piece. The next day at medical college, his mind was on the live Mendelssohn he had heard, rather than the dead fish in front of him for dissection. When the lecturer told him off for day-dreaming, the young Zubin picked up the fish, threw it across the floor, walked out of the laboratory and out of medicine forever.
He was sent to Vienna, where he heard for the first time real music played by a real orchestra in a real music auditorium, and thus inspired, joined the Vienna Academy of Music to study conducting; Daniel Barenboim and Claudio Abbado were fellow students. Their teacher, Professor Swarowski, was most impressed, telling Mehli Mehta, “Your son is a born conductor”. But Swarowski was also a very stern teacher. Zubin says, “He stood right behind me. If I threw my arms about while conducting, the professor would grab them from behind, shouting ‘Keep still, keep still! You are not directing traffic!’”
The same year he joined the Vienna Academy, Zubin Mehta had won his first international conducting competition. The rest is history. But there’s no rest in this particular history, as we will see. From 1962 to 1967 he was music director of the Montreal and Los Angeles orchestras. While he left Montreal, he continued with Los Angeles for 16 years! Perhaps his flamboyant style struck a receptive chord with that mercurial city. He then moved on to the New York Philharmonic, a position he held for 13 years, the longest in the orchestra’s history. Towards the later part of his stint there, he was simultaneously with the Israel Philharmonic, and with so much on his plate, he had to turn down the offer of taking over as music director of the London Philharmonic. Incidentally, in 1981, the Israeli orchestra took the unusual step of appointing Zubin Mehta Music Director for Life, but he took up other assignments too: chief conductor of the Maggio Musicale in Florence in 1985 and music director of the Bavarian State Orchestra and the Bavarian State Opera in 1998. In Vienna, he was made an honorary citizen and bestowed the title of ‘honorary conductor’ by the Vienna Philharmonic in 2001, where he has conducted their prestigious new year concerts as many as five times.
Zubin Mehta in the 1970s
Unlike many conductors, Zubin Mehta didn’t confine himself to the orchestral repertoire, vast though it is, but ventured into opera fairly early in his career (beginning with Tosca in 1964). Since then, he has conducted opera in the world’s leading companies: the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Royal Opera House in London, La Scala in Milan, the Vienna State Opera and opera houses in Montreal, Chicago, Florence as well as major festivals such as Salzburg.
But longevity and incredibly long associations with the world’s leading orchestras aren’t the only hallmarks of Zubin Mehta’s remarkable career. Two others stand out, manifesting themselves time and again. The first is doing what he thought was right, even if it was contrary to current musical fashion. This showed up in his very first concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He chose a programme consisting of Mozart’s Don Giovanni overture, followed by Hindemith’s symphony based on his opera Mathis der Maler. The second half featured Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony. Even today, this seems like an unusual mix; back then, both the Hindemith and Dvorak were not even part of the standard repertoire.
In his 13 years at the New York Philharmonic, where he conducted over a thousand concerts, the youthful exuberance of his Los Angeles days gave way to a new mellowness. But that didn’t mean that his programming became conventional or predictable; in fact, the repertoire he presented was incredibly wide in its range so that the orchestra would go for weeks without repeating a work. He himself worked prodigiously hard, putting in 16-hour days, challenging himself to learn new works, to explore composers he hadn’t played before, and consequently challenging the orchestra too. The New York orchestra had a reputation for being difficult—not surprising when you consider the average New Yorker’s in-the-face attitude—but Zubin’s style of give and take, of listening to different viewpoints, his ability to cajole and be firm at the same time, to be simultaneously a democrat and a dictator, struck a chord with these difficult musicians, which also explains his long association with so many orchestras.
Zubin Mehta has another contrarian trait: he is not afraid to be called a ‘populist’. He put together and conducted the first Three Tenors concert (Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti) in 1990, following that up with several repeats. The recording of the debut concert became the best-selling classical album of all time. A televised performance performed in LA was seen by 1.3 billion viewers worldwide. There have been several other path-breaking, if unconventional concerts, like staging Mahler’s Second Symphony (Resurrection) next to the Buchenwald concentration camp, using German and Jewish orchestras playing side by side. Puccini’s Turandot was performed in Beijing in the surroundings of the forbidden city, with 300 extras and 300 soldiers participating. In 2005, he took the Bavarian State Orchestra to Chennai to commemorate the Indian Ocean tsunami; and in 2013, to Ehsaas-e-Kashmir in Srinagar’s Mughal Gardens. He also created a huge controversy by playing Wagner in Israel (the composer was a vicious anti-Semite; later a favourite of the Nazi regime). The overarching message in all these was this: that music reaches out to all humanity by transcending man-made boundaries of geography and religion. And Zubin Mehta would try to break down as many of these barriers as possible before he was done.
I asked him once if so much of music wasn’t sometimes too much. In 58 long years of conducting, he must have played a particular work so very many times; surely, at some point it must get repetitive and boring. “Not at all,” he told me. “Each time I get an orchestra to play something, I will find new things in it. Each orchestra, to start with, will have its own character which will reflect in the interpretation. Then a solo part in a symphony, say the horn, will be played differently depending on the musician. I then have to ask myself: Does his playing fit in with my vision of the work? Do I change it a bit here and there? Or do I want the brass to be a little more assertive? It’s always different. It’s always exciting.”
That, I suppose, is what keeps the light undimmed after so many years. Each day brings in a new excitement; each day brings a revelation. What do years matter then?