Interview with Aimee Ginsburg for Outlook India
The maestro waves his wand. His trust will promote western classical music in India.
"So Mr Zubin Mehta, can you please tell me, do you belong everywhere or do you belong nowhere?"
I'm sitting with the maestro in the gleaming lobby of the Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai, home for a week to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the greatest in the world, with which Mehta has shared a long and special relationship. A few kilometres away, at Cuffe Parade, is his childhood home, where as a five-year-old boy he used to conduct imaginary orchestras, standing on an old vegetable crate.
The people milling around the hotel lobby seem visibly starstruck, but Mehta, tired after an intense week of rehearsals, performances, black-tie affairs and private get-togethers with his close friends Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman and Placido Domingo, is not making eye contact, conserving his energy for the evening ahead.
"I belong to India, first, then to Israel, to Los Angeles and to everywhere that I have worked and lived."
It's almost 4.30 pm. In a few hours he will be on stage at the cricket stadium, in final rehearsals for the sold-out mega event: Placido Domingo and Barbara Frittoli singing with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
The concert will be a huge success:
the audience, kinky in their plastic ponchos—handed out to all at the gate—worn over their most elegant clothes and jewellery, will devour every note in rapture. But Zubin doesn't know this yet, and his tension can be seen in his famous arms, spanning universes while on stage, but now held close together on his lap.
Mehta is obviously moved to his core by the outpouring of affection by the people of Mumbai. He has been planning this star-studded tour for several years, a benefit for the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation (which will encourage western classical music education for children and youth) in early October.
"Zubin has always said Tel Aviv reminds him of Bombay. I see what means. I think I now understand him better."
People close to him say he is not quite himself, quicker to snap, withdrawn, often teary-eyed. "This is one of the pinnacles of his life, honouring his father in this way," says legendary pianist Daniel Barenboim, "if he is not himself, let's not make much of it."
Mehta has often worked closely with Barenboim in his efforts to build peace between Israel and Palestine, through music.
"I belong to India, first off," Mehta now says, "then I belong to Israel, to Los Angeles, to everywhere I have worked and lived." I tell him that Zukerman and Barenboim, both Israelis who have lived "outside" for many years, also stressed the fact that they are and always will be Israelis. In Israel, those who have left usually feel somewhat defensive, a bit guilty. Is it like that for NRIs as well?
"Somehow, there is a greater need to show your love if you have left," replies Zubin. "Do you feel judged or criticised for a lack of loyalty or patriotism?" I ask.
"If I was a famous doctor living in New York (he had indeed briefly studied medicine before turning decisively to music), people could ask, Why don't you come back home and practise here where you're really needed? But I'm a conductor of western classical music. What would I do here? There is no place for me here."
Yesterday, on these same leather sofas, four orchestra members, back from some hasty shopping on the Causeway, giggled delightedly as one of them related the tale of an elderly waiter in a small local restaurant who on hearing that his customer was a member of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, had said, "Ah yes! Zubin Mehta! A very good Bombay boy!" The musicians grin at this description of their revered maestro. "We respect him completely," says a bassoon player, "I mull over the things he says to me very deeply, over many days.
Maybe even years."
"Actually, that Bombay boy does peek out at us sometimes," says another of the musicians. "His eyes will suddenly twinkle in a certain way and he will be, for a moment, a street prankster from the neighbourhood."
"It is really wonderful to finally see where Zubin comes from," says Zukerman, among the world's greatest violinists. "Bombay has a certain distinctive feel to it, and I recognise this as a part of Zubin. Actually, he has always said Tel Aviv reminds him of Bombay, and now I see what he means: the exuberance of the people on the street, the friendliness, the ocean air. I think I will be able to understand him better now."
The orchestra members, all of whom have foregone their usual touring fees (all the soloists have also performed gratis) as an expression of love for the maestro, leaving their homes and families during the Jewish High Holidays, agree.
Backstage before and after rehearsals and performances, a high-voltage force-field seems to emanate from Mehta's green room. Fans, musicians, and staff alike seem to halt, rearrange themselves, take a deep breath before they enter. A tea server emerges smiling from the green room at the NCPA. "This is the first time I heard this kind of music," he says.
"And what do you think?" I ask him. "It is fully first class. We are loving it." Mehta says he has great respect for Indian music in its many regional and stylistic varieties (except for Bollywood songs, which he seems to disdain), but he is not really so familiar with it. "We never heard it at home growing up, and I followed what my father taught me," he says.
Mehta met Lata Mangeshkar once at a cricket game (his next favourite passion after classical music). "She is a wonderful singer, a great musician. I was deeply honoured to meet her," he says. He stays silent for a while, though, when I humbly suggest he invite her to sing with his orchestra.
"Indian and western styles don't fully match," he says finally.
(Aimee Ginsburg is the India correspondent for Israel's largest daily, Yediot Achronot.)