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Interview with Dorit Gabai / Ma'ariv 29th July 2005
The Conductor Dares
By  Dorit  Gabay  Maariv
Just as he nursed his dying father three years ago, Zubin Mehta stopped his fast-pace peripatetic schedule to be at his mother's side in her last moments. In the middle of intensive rehearsals with the IPO, he takes time to talk about the painful parting from his parents, and surprisingly diverges from his diplomatic custom, not hesitating to talk about politics. Yes to a Palestinian state; no to the separation fence; and the disengagement is merely "baksheesh". This is the Maestro.
The IPO players had already taken their seats on the stage of the Mann Auditorium. In a minute the dress rehearsal will begin. They waited for Maestro Zubin Mehta to raise his baton and give them a cue. But here, from the tip of one of the violins, dangles an orange ribbon. The orange ribbon. What will happen now? How will the opinionated Maestro react, even though he makes sure to separate between music and politics, but personally believes in the disengagement? Will he leave the hall in protest, as the audience did during the concert in which he conducted a work by Wagner; or perhaps he will wait for the intermission and only then will he politely ask the violinist to remove the ribbon from the violin, which may star in a new scandal, like the violin that the Palestinian citizen was ordered to play at the army barricade in order to prove, god forbid, that there was no bomb in it? Mehta continued to wave his baton with full force even after he detected the orange ribbon. There were also no political debates or protests among the players. The rehearsal carried on as usual.
When asked about the event that didn't happen, Mehta did not embark on a political recital. The orange ribbon produced from him a wide smile and raising of eyebrows, like a child who has just been exposed to a covert plot from the adult world. "I only noticed it at a later stage in the rehearsal. I was shocked. At first I thought it was a joke. But this is a democracy, which means that people have the right to express their opinions, whatever they may be. When this happens during a rehearsal it is alright with me, but I wouldn't allow it to happen in a concert. I am certain that our audience also has diverse opinions about the disengagement, but nobody comes to a concert in order to express or hear political views. There should be separation."
The orange ribbon illustrated to Mehta how much the reality in Israel has changed in the past five months. At the beginning of March, when the opponents of the disengagement protested at junctions throughout the country, equipped with a new symbol, Mehta cancelled his appearances here at the last minute. The Maestro, who is both Music Director of the IPO and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, made place for the first time in years to Zubin Mehta the son. His love of music was forsaken for the love of his mother, Tehmina. He left for Los Angeles to look after his sick mother, with whom he remained until her death.
"My mother was 96 and never took any medication", he says with pride and pain. "In January this year I was on holiday at home in LA. I looked through my diary and suddenly realized that until August I was not scheduled to go home and would therefore not be able to see my mother. I didn't have the heart to say to her that I'd be seeing her only in August, and before parting with her I said: 'I'll see you soon'. Even though I talked to her twice a day over the phone, I didn't want to wait for so many months until I'd see her again. At that time we didn't know that she had a brain tumor. She didn't complain of any pain and there were no symptoms. But then, in March, I had a feeling, for some reason, that this would be the last time I would see her. I felt she was deteriorating. She slept most of the day and when I asked her: 'Why are you sleeping all the time?' she answered: 'I don't have anything to do, so I sleep'.
"You must understand, my parents were married for 67 years. My father died when my mother was 94, and she was left all alone. Until then, she had never been alone. From her father's home she moved straight into my father's home after they married. Although they had friends who visited her after his death, it just wasn't the same. I wanted to see my mother before August and I asked the IPO to allow me to be with her for two weeks and to cancel my appearances in that month's concerts. The orchestra agreed, and when I visited my mother I smiled at her and said: 'I told you I'd see you soon'. I was with her for two days and then had to travel to Bombay, for two concerts in memory of my father, which I was unable to cancel. During the Bombay visit I found out that she had brain cancer. I returned to LA. She was about to undergo surgery. She recognized me, but was already unable to speak. I didn't tell her about her brain tumor. I wanted to prevent her from being afraid and anxious. This was the last time I saw her. A few days later she passed away."
Mehta had already experienced this situation. Precisely three years ago, in July 2002, he flew from Israel to LA after discovering that his father, Mehli, who was a conductor and a violinist, was dying. "My father, as opposed to my mother, was a very sick man. He had suffered three heart-attacks during his life. When I heard that his condition had worsened I flew to him immediately and cancelled my appearances here. My father spent his last three months in hospital. After I arrived in LA he found out that I was supposed to go on an Australian tour with the IPO. He insisted that I go on tour as planned. I had no choice and agreed to do so. When I returned from Australia he was still alive. His lungs were barely functioning and he was being fed through tubes. The doctors forbade him to drink water because he would choke. My father was not hungry, he did not ask to eat, but only begged that we put some ice on his tongue. He simply wanted to feel a drop of water. I can't imagine anything worse than the feeling of not being able to drink water. The doctor allowed us once in a while to put a small ice cube on his tongue, but my father always asked for more and more ice, and I was forced to refuse his wish, because I knew that it could kill him. He was very angry with me and said: 'You are a traitor. You prefer to listen to the doctors and are not looking after me.' My father's end was rough, painful and full of suffering. He died at the age of 94 and since his demise I have thought about him a lot and have dreamt about him every night. I loved him attending my concerts. I felt that I was conducting for him personally."
Two Horns for Saxophone
Zubin Mehta was born 68 years ago in Bombay. He was exposed to music from childhood. At first he studied the piano, and later played the double-bass. In contrast with the words of a song by the Israeli rock-group "The Dorbanim" ("The Porcupines"), Mehta never "functioned as a tourist guide before becoming a super-conductor". Although he planned on becoming a physician, he eventually chose another career and at the age of 18 traveled to Vienna to study music professionally.
"At the age of 16 I already realized I would not study medicine", he recalls. "I knew that it wasn't for me. All my life music surrounded me. I listened to music at home 24 hours a day. My father, who was a trained accountant, used to say to me: 'You can study music, but you should first have a profession.' But he himself made a living as a private music teacher and played in a trio in clubs in Bombay, which admitted only Englishmen. My father, who was a nationalist and supported India's independence, despised these clubs.
"From the age of 6 or 7 he taught me how to appreciate music. What to appreciate, how to read a score. He would put on a record, sit down beside me, open a score and show me the various instruments in the orchestra. When I was nine he traveled for five years to America to teach music professionally, after receiving a scholarship from a wealthy Farsi family. Until then he acquired his musical knowledge on his own. He was an autodidact and taught himself to play Beethoven's Violin Concerto. But it wasn't professional playing. Even though my father founded the Bombay Philharmonic Orchestra and was its Concertmaster, this orchestra wasn't professional. In his absence I used to listen every day to his records and I learned all the symphonies. This is how I acquired my musical knowledge."
Mehta remained in Bombay with his brother and mother. The family earned a living by renting out a room in their house and through financial support of the grandfather from the mother's side. "My mother was a very strong woman", he says. "She always supported us. But I missed my father very much. He didn't tell me how long he would be gone, and as a child I didn't know that I would not be seeing him for a long time. At the time, there was no fax or telephone line between Bombay and New York, or internet. We waited impatiently for his letters. He used to go to concerts and in each program-booklet he made comments about the performance of the works. He then sent us the programs, which were actually his letters."
Upon returning from the USA Mehta's father began organizing concerts in Bombay. At the time there were no public relations, impresarios or even organized management at the Philharmonic. Mehta, his brother and mother assisted in any way they could. "We prepared the programs together, and saw to it that they were published", says Mehta with a smile. "My father would mark in the score the instructions for the violinists and I would then copy them into the other parts. In addition, the orchestra did not have all the instruments. For instance, there were only two horns. The other two horn parts were played by a saxophone, and we had to transpose the music for saxophone."
When did you first conduct an orchestra?
At the age of 15. My father was rehearsing the orchestra for a concert with Yehudi Menuhin. He did this by playing Menuhin's solo part on the violin, and I took his place on the podium after he had taught me the score. He, of course, conducted the concert."
Mehli Mehta's initiative did not last long. "At a certain stage the audience was reduced", explains Mehta junior, "because my father's concerts were held only in Bombay and everybody had already attended them. At the same time, he hardly ever taught music, since the number of students also decreased. How long can a person play in one city before such a small audience? Six years after he returned from America he sold our house in India and moved with my mother to Manchester, England, where he was appointed Assistant Conductor. At the time I was already studying at the Music Academy in Vienna and my brother was studying accountancy in London. Although our family was scattered in various countries we always maintained a continuous relationship. I remember that I used to fly to Manchester especially to visit my parents and to eat Indian food. At times I was so hungry in Vienna, because there was no Indian food there. Until today I am attached to Indian food."
Five years later his parents moved to Philadelphia, where his father played in a string quartet. They remained in the USA and Mehli Mehta conducted various orchestras and promoted young talents. He left the jumping back and forth between various world locales to his son.
The young Mehta's musical career soared. At 23 he was appointed Principal Conductor and Music Director of the Montreal Philharmonic, and a year later was also appointed Music Director of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra. Major appointments have since become a part of his life. In 1978 he was appointed Music Director of the New York Philharmonic.
Mehta's life gradually became closely connected with Israel. In 1961 he conducted the IPO for the first time, and seven years later was appointed its Music Advisor. In 1981 his appointment was extended for life. "The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is my first love", he explains. "This orchestra adopted me when I was very young. The players were twice my age. It was then a Polish orchestra, today it is Russian. My entire existence and presence in Israel stems from my feelings towards this place. I did not come here for financial reasons and I didn't need the activity in Israel in order to promote my career abroad. My music making here stems from my love and desire to promote the culture. However, I am very embarrassed that I still don't speak Hebrew. I speak eight languages and I can't explain why I don't speak Hebrew. I am surprised at myself for not having shown more interest or finding more time to learn the language. I have many close friends in Israel, people whom I love, and therefore have more reason to learn Hebrew. I spend five months a year in Munich, but I don't have any friends there, and yet I speak fluent German."
Throughout the years he has spent in Israel Mehta has experienced the security and political reality in flesh. Thus, for example, a moment before conducting a special concert in Bethlehem in 1968, with an audience consisting of Jews, Christians and Muslims, he was informed of a terrorist attack. "My dear friend Teddy Kolek, who was Mayor of Jerusalem at the time, whispered in my ear moments before I went on the podium that there is a new terrorist organization called 'Fattah'. He said to me: 'I have information that this new organization will use this special event to become renowned, and will carry out a terrorist attack. If you hear shots during the concert don't run off the stage, so that the audience doesn't panic.' I went on the podium and began conducting Verdi's Requiem. During the first seconds of the concert I imagined how in another moment somebody would be standing behind me and holding a gun to my head. But after several seconds I completely forgot about it and was totally engrossed in the music, and nothing happened."
In 1981 Mehta stood at the center of a local public storm, after the IPO under his baton had performed a work by Richard Wagner. "At the end of the concert I announced to the audience that we are going to play Wagner", he relays, "and I purposefully chose a quiet work. I told the audience that we live in a democracy and whoever wishes to leave may do so. Almost everyone remained in the hall. At a certain point several people began shouting in protest and were joined by others. This happened during a quiet passage, and the shouting was heard throughout the hall. I didn't stop the concert. When the music became louder people became silent. In the following day's concert we wanted to play Wagner again, but this time everyone shouted and we had to stop. Only afterwards did I understand that it was too soon to play Wagner in Israel. I understood that I had offended people. I was not unaware of the fact that there are too many people with a number tattooed on their arms, survivors of the concentration camps, who love hearing classical music. Some of them have no problem driving a Mercedes, but Wagner takes them back to the time of the Holocaust."
The Speaker of the Knesset at the time, Dov Shilansky, demanded that Mehta be declared a persona non grata in Israel. Mehta was deeply offended, and years later, when he received the Israel Prize, he refused to shake Shilansky's hand. He also did not hesitate to openly pass harsh criticism on the decision of the Knesset's Education Committee to declare his good friend Daniel Barenboim a persona non grata, after he conducted a work by Wagner in the Israel Festival.
When do you think it will be possible to play Wagner in Israel?
"Perhaps in the future. At some point we may try it, but we'll see."
Six years ago, incidentally, Mehta conducted the Bavarian State Opera and the Israel Philharmonic in a special joint concert in Weimar, Germany, at the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp.
We Have a Wonderful Orchestra
Throughout the years Mehta has formed firm opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a concert that took place a day after the terrorist attack in Netanya, he asked the audience to stand for a minute in memory of the people killed. At the same time, he also donates old instruments of the IPO to student musicians in Ramallah. When Barenboim was harshly criticized for holding a concert in Ramallah, Mehta once again came to his defense publicly. "Does anyone know what's going on in Ramallah?" he is still saying, "or what the situation is like over there? How can it be good in a city in which 60 percent of the population is unemployed?"
When the Maestro starts a political monologue it is very difficult to stop him. His manifest does not sound like a sermon. One can hear the frustration and sorrow in his voice, as though his homeland India had been occupied yet again by the English. Mehta believes that the situation can improve - not in ten years time, but now.
"The disengagement is merely baksheesh", he states, "It is charity. You must destroy the fence and give the Palestinians an independent State. If Sharon doesn't give the Palestinians their own country, he is actually doing nothing to promote peace. The main point in the disengagement process is what will happen in September. I am certain that it will be executed in August and I believe that there won't be a civil war, but only protest. I appreciate the strength of this government, which is carrying out the disengagement, but we must continue it. A moment after the settlements are evacuated from Gaza we'll hear the big 'Nu': 'Nu, what will happen now? Nu, when will something else happen on the road to peace?' If you give the Palestinians freedom and destroy the fence, there will be peace here. You built a fence, claiming that it is intended to prevent terrorist attacks, and here, the attack in Netanya proves that the terrorists can enter Israeli territory and kill innocent people. The terrorist organizations made a big mistake when they performed this attack, but you made a mistake when you built the fence, because it encourages them to prove that they can infiltrate it. It should be destroyed."
"Think for a moment: you cannot give someone a home and demand from him to receive permission every time he wants to leave his home. How would you feel if this happened to you? And don't talk to me about terrorist attacks, because I know this and cry with everyone when it happens. I will never forgive the terrorists for killing so many innocent Israeli civilians. In this matter, unfortunately, I believe that Abu Mazen cannot do a thing. He is not strong enough. Even though there hadn't been attacks for months, there was still the attack in Netanya.
"You claim that the Palestinians can't be trusted, and I believe that many generations will pass until the Palestinians and Israelis will love each other. But in the meantime, give it a chance. You say: 'First they must get rid of the terrorist organizations'. But if you give the Palestinians a deadline for the foundation of their independent State, the terrorist organizations will cease to operate. There is a lot of potential in this place. The Palestinians and Jews are very wise and are good businessmen. If there is ever a common market in the Middle East, the Palestinians and Israelis will run it.
"For years I thought that the Palestinians are construction workers, until I was invited to a meal at the home of the American Consul in East Jerusalem. There I met Palestinians for the first time. They looked like anyone else. Only then did I learn that the Palestinians are an educated and cultured people, and not construction workers.
"During the Six Day War, after the Western Wall was captured, I was at a meeting with Teddy Kolek. David Ben Gurion phoned me and said: 'We will never give this back'. But since then, you haven't given back anything to the Palestinians. Jerusalem should be a 'State City', a joint international place for all nations and religions. A Palestinian State should exist without a fence surrounding it. You cannot humiliate them. This humiliation will only reinforce their hatred towards you. Only after you give them the freedom to live and to make a living, will the violence stop. Everything I say here I have also said to the Palestinians."
In the meantime Mehta finds a lot of consolation in concerts of mixed audiences. "A concert is a time of peace", he explains. "Not political peace, but peace in the sense of tranquility. The fact that the audience consists of Jews, Arabs, Palestinians and Israelis gives me a lot of joy."
Like many others, Mehta has fallen victim to Arafat's bear hug. On the anniversary of the signing of the Oslo treaty, Mehta conducted a special concert in the presence of Arafat and Shimon Peres. When Arafat came on stage, he grasped Mehta and hugged him very hard. Mehta recalls this, and not with great pleasure: "Shimon Peres shook my hand, as customary, but Arafat, whom I had never met, hugged me. This appalled me and I felt weird. He used to hug everyone in order to show the world that he is seemingly close to people. But it wasn't sincere. I didn't like it."
Mehta is married for the second time and a father of four children, with whom he keeps warm and close relations, as he does with his grandchildren. Two children are from his first marriage: Mervon, General Manager of the Music Center in Philadelphia, and Zarina, a nurse in Montreal. His two other children are 39-year-old Alexandra, who lives in Los Angeles and 15-year-old Ori, who lives in Israel.
His schedule is very tight until the year 2010 ("I envy people who don't know what they'll be doing tomorrow"). In addition to his official positions he devotes time to discovering and nurturing young players in Israel and around the world, such as the violinists Gil Shaham and Maxim Vengerov. Ariel Tushinsky, the cellist of the successful Jerusalem Trio, says about him: "I cannot recall a conductor who is so involved in nurturing young talents. Many soloists who launched successful careers abroad did it thanks to Mehta. There is no greater pleasure than to perform with him; he is clear, charismatic and knows what he wants."
Since returning to Israel two weeks ago for subscription concerts of the end of the season, Mehta has not rested for a moment. He conducts concerts daily and stays up until the wee hours of the morning studying the scores and works he will conduct in the future. He opens his morning with three newspapers: "Herald Tribune", "Jerusalem Post" and the English version of "Ha'aretz". In the afternoon he reads the "London Times". When he wants to rest a little, he watches his beloved cricket matches on TV.
He rehearses with the IPO every day. Simultaneously, he is recording a CD of the IPO with the violinist Nikolaj Znaider, and also holds auditions for players and soloists. Within this very tight schedule Mehta still finds time to visit his friend Abe Nathan, who has been paralyzed since he had a stroke. Friendship to Mehta is the most supreme value. When many disappeared from Nathan's life, Mehta remained close to him, a friend. At the beginning of August the IPO will embark on a three-week concert tour in South America. In October the IPO's 70th Season will open with Verdi's "La Traviata".
In the rehearsals, as in the concerts, Mehta conducts with vigor and charisma. He raises his baton high, leans towards the players and straightens up, stretching his arms to the sides and embracing the music.
The legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan used to conduct with his eyes closed, entirely enveloped in music. Is eye contact with the conductor vital?
"Sometimes I close my eyes, and sometimes I maintain eye contact with the players. It is very important. In any event, we have a wonderful orchestra, one of the finest in the world, and I hope the Israeli audience will get to hear the orchestra just as it sounds abroad, after we renovate the Mann Auditorium. The Israeli audience does not know how good the orchestra sounds, because the acoustics of the Mann Auditorium is not perfect."
The IPO is currently raising funds for the renovation of the Mann Auditorium. The required amount is ca. 40 million dollars. Until now only ten million have been raised. "I don't know how to ask for donations, I'm not good at it", admits Mehta. "But I always know how to express my heartfelt gratitude."
You have been working very hard for decades. How much of it today is by choice, or is it, perhaps, habit?
"It's a little of both, habit and choice. Conducting is the way in which I express myself, communicate with the players and through them with the audience. I cannot stop conducting. There are also obligations and a wish not to disappoint people, and therefore I cannot reduce my work load. I could have said that at my age I want to work a little less, but I don't want to seem like a prima donna."
What scares you?
"I'm not scared. I worry a lot. I worry about my grandchildren's future, about my daughter in Montreal. Now I'm still here, in control, but I'm scared about what'll happen when I won't be around. Who will look after them then? I worry about my daughter because she was married and divorced twice. She is a nurse who looks after everybody with so much care and warmth. I'm not afraid for myself. I don't live a dangerous life, why should I be scared?"
If you had more hours a day, how would you use them?
"I would play more, make more music, take more vacations and spend more time with my grandchildren. I don't spend much time with my family, and this is the greatest loss in my life."