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June 10, 2019

Interview with Maestro Zubin Mehta: "Don’t look at the conductor, it doesn’t help"

I have many plans, I’m still young!

Jegors Jerohomovičs’ /Diena, 27.04.2019 / conversation with legendary conductor Zubin Mehta, who will perform this summer in the Rīga Jūrmala Music Festival with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Maestro Zubin Mehta is a classical padishah, one of the last superheroes of the golden age who has influenced musical development. On April 29th he will celebrate his 83rd birthday. Zubin Mehta was born in 1936 in Bombay (now Mumbai). His father Mehli Mehta was a violinist and founder of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. At the age of 18, Zubin Mehta began his studies at the Vienna Music Academy, where his professor was the distinguished conductor Hans Swarowsky.

Sixty years at the top

Zubin Mehta was the musical director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (1961-1967), the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1962-1978), the New York Philharmonic (1978-1991) and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich (1998-2006). From 1985-2017 he was the Principal Conductor of the Florence Festival and the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino theatre.

Since 1969, Mehta has been Head of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom he will perform in August at the Rīga Jūrmala Music Festival. In October, after fifty years as artistic leader, he will leave this group. Since the start of the 1960s, Mehta has given more than three thousand concerts on five continents with the Israel Philharmonic.

Zubin Mehta has conducted operas at the world’s best theatres and festivals, in addition to performing with the world’s most significant symphony orchestras. His partnership with the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras is six decades long. Both groups – as well as many other orchestras and opera houses – have given him the  title of Conductor Emeritus. Mehta is a winner of the Japanese Praemium Imperialearts award, and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Tosca in an authentic backdrop

Without Mehta, we wouldn’t have had the phenomenon of the Three Tenors – Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras. In 1990, he conducted the first Three Tenors concert in Rome, and in 1994 in a concert in Los Angeles.

In 1992 in Rome, under the leadership of Mehta, an historical performance of Puccini’s Tosca took place – each act was performed exactly in the place and time as shown in the libretto. The unique performance, featuring soprano Catherine Malfitano (Tosca), tenor Plácido Domingo (Cavaradossi) and bass-baritone Ruggero Raimondi (Scarpia), was broadcast on television. The first act began at lunchtime at Rome’s Sant’Andrea della Valle basilica. The second act was performed in the evening that same day at the Palazzo Farnese. The third act was performed the next day at the Castel Sant’Angelo.

Twenty years ago, Mehta, in collaboration with famous Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, performed Puccini’s Turandot in Beijing’s Forbidden City. It remains one of the grandest performances in the history of opera.

Maestro Mehta was one of the first to understand that classical music should be unbound from overwrought elitism and that musicians should break down cultural and social barriers to reach the widest audience possible. When Mehta was in charge of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the musicians gave free concerts to the African-American and Latin American communities. Under Mehta’s leadership, the orchestra at the University of California performed with rock icon, guitarist and composer Frank Zappa and experimental rock group The Mothers of Invention. Mehta performed in Harlem with the New York Philharmonic. The conductor involved his compatriot, Indian music guru Ravi Shankar in symphonic music projects.

Zubin Mehta’s activities have a powerful sociopolitical direction. The musician promotes understanding between Jews and Arabs. As an Indian national, he is allowed to visit Palestine and, along with his friend and colleague Daniel Barenboim, helps young musicians in Ramallah. Mehta has given concerts near the Buchenwald concentration camp, in zones of military conflict in Europe and the Middle East, and in regions affected by natural disasters in Asia.

Meeting in Baden-Baden

Zubin Mehta gave an interview to KDi last week in Baden-Baden, where he was conducting the Berlin Philharmonic at the Easter Festival in a new production of Verdi’s Otello directed by Robert Wilson. The main roles were sung by tenor Stuart Skelton (Otello), soprano Sonya Yoncheva (Desdemona) and baritone Vladimir Stoyanov (Iago). On April 25th and 28th, the concert version of Otello will be performed under Mehta’s baton at the Berliner Philharmonie.

At the Rīga Jūrmala Festival, which will take place between July 19th and September 1st, Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra will perform two programmes at the Dzintari Concert Hall: Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 for piano and orchestra (soloist: Murray Perahia) and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 on August 24th, and Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 for piano and orchestra (soloist: Yuja Wang) and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique on August 25th.

This will be your third time in Latvia with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Yes, we first performed in Latvia during the perestroika period with a concert at the Opera. We played Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. At that time, there were quite a few players in the orchestra who had moved from Riga to Israel. For them, it was a moving return home. We were warmly greeted by the local Jewish community, and it was a long, lovely evening – after the concert, the musicians sat at tables and listened to children performing. We hadn’t expected that.

I clearly remember our last performance in Jūrmala, in August 2015. The Dzintari Concert Hall has a good atmosphere and acoustic; I like giving outdoor concerts. The orchestra is on holiday in August, however we accepted the Rīga Jūrmala Festival’s invitation to come and visit you again.

You have been conducting for more than six decades now. Would you say that you had dedicated your whole life to music?

I had no other option! Music was my father’s life, and it’s my life too. Recently I underwent two operations, and I was forced to take a break from work. Now I feel good. After the Jūrmala concert, we are embarking on a tour of Europe. This will be my last tour with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. In October I will relinquish responsibilities as Musical Director of the orchestra.

Will saying goodbye to the orchestra be sad or happy?

Happy! It’s my decision, the orchestra hasn’t decided to change the conductor. When I announced it, the musicians were in shock. We have been shoulder to shoulder for fifty years. It’s a good time to step down from the role. I think there has only been one other conductor in history who has lead an orchestra for so long. I don’t even remember his name! It was a long time ago. Nowadays, no maestro works with one orchestra for half a century. Not Herbert von Karajan, not Wilhelm Furtwangler.

I will be passing on the baton to 30-year-old Israeli conductor Lahav Shani. He is very talented, I trust him. I am leaving Shani an orchestra in very good form. Over fifty years, the group has learned the widest repertoire – everything but Wagner. We have performed everything by Mahler, Bruckner, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, every opera by Mozart, Verdi and Puccini. We have played everything you could think of. Shani will have to leave his own mark, and the orchestra knows this.

Wagner’s repertoire is a painful subject in Israel.

We are showing respect to the survivors of the Holocaust for whom Wagner’s music is associated with terror. The Nazis played Wagner loudly in the concentration camps to torture the Jews. As long as there are people among us who have lived through that, who still have their concentration camp prisoner number tattooed on them, we won’t play Wagner. You can’t let go of those memories, and we respect that. That’s why Wagner doesn’t get played in Israel.

Could this situation change?

Yes, it should definitely change. I hope that the next conductor of the Israel Philharmonic can take a step in this direction. He is young, after all.

The orchestra players themselves want to play Wagner, right?

Yes, they want to. We did a survey of our audience, and 86% of respondents wanted to hear Wagner’s music.

Over the course of your long life, have you ever had any other professional passions or interests outside of music?

No, no, no! My parents wanted me to study medicine. After my first preparatory course I realised that medicine isn’t my thing. In my youth, I went to study in Vienna, and since then my life has only been about music. I started learning the basics of music and listening to recordings in my early childhood in Bombay; my father had a large record collection. I went to Vienna well prepared – I had the tempos chosen by Toscanini and Furtwangler in my head. But I heard symphonic music in concert for the first time in Vienna.

You can imagine what it meant to me hearing the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time in the Golden Hall of the Wiener Musikverein! It was a revolution of sound for me. Before then I had only listened to recordings, and in those days they were not of such high quality as now. The sound quality of the Vienna Philharmonic became my barometer of perfection. The Mozart and Wagner performed by this orchestra became the standard for interpretation and style. I arrived from India and I had no idea about style. I learned it all from the Vienna Philharmonic.

Are you a Viennese school, Viennese style conductor?

Undeniably. 80% of my repertoire is made up of what is called the Viennese classics – from Haydn to Schoenberg.

How did you feel conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the Golden Hall of the Wiener Musikverein? Is that still special to you? Five times now, you have conducted the orchestra’s famous New Year’s Concert in that hall.

I feel at home there. It’s nothing new to me. I grew up there, became a musician. And I have always stood in the Golden Hall – in my youth I selected the cheapest standing ticket at the back of the hall, and then to this very day I have stood on the podium at the front of the hall. The same in the Vienna State Opera. I have never sat down there! My path has been from one “standing place” to another. To tell you the truth, after my hip operation I conducted sitting down. Maybe I will stand in Jūrmala.

Where do you get your energy to work?

My energy source is love for music. Here at the Easter Festival in Baden-Baden I conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in the opera Otello. It was hugely enjoyable. I agreed to do it because I have the time. Due to my operation, I had to cancel a lot of things, and I had nothing planned in this period. When the orchestra asked me to conduct Otello, I said – yes, I would love to work with you! (To start with, Daniele Gatti was supposed to conduct Otello, but his contract was cancelled soon after the Italian conductor was found to have committed indecent behaviour – sexually assaulting musicians of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; almost all orchestras, theatres and festivals stopped working with him, although he has not yet been convicted – J.J.)

In your creative life, are there any events which stand out which have changed the course of your career?

Vienna changed my life and career. Period. It happened the moment I stepped over the threshold of the Wiener Musikverein. It’s the best concert hall in the world. The first time I went, I ended up there by accident. I had just arrived in Vienna, I was walking past, and I looked in through the stage door – Herbert von Karajan was leading a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. I quietly went into the hall, sat down and started listening. I thought to myself – what is this?! What am I hearing?! I was moved to my depths of my heart, I had never experienced anything like that before. At that time, I wasn’t brave enough to introduce myself to Karajan or even greet him. Later, I took part in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony conducted by him; I sang in the choir.

As I said, I grew up and matured in the Golden Hall of the Wiener Musikverein. I have performed there many times, not just with the Vienna Philharmonic, but with all the groups I have conducted: the Montreal Symphony, New York, Los Angeles and Israel Philharmonic Orchestras.

What has changed in your attitude towards this profession over the course of six decades?

It’s not a profession, firstly, it’s a love and passion. I truly love everything I do. It has nothing to do with professionalism. Professionalism is awakened in me when I am conducting a new piece I don’t like. I do it because I have to – in that case, I am a professional. We have commissioned a piece from a composer, and the orchestra has to play it.

It can happen that I don’t believe an opus to be particularly good, but we have taken on the responsibility of playing it. Violinist Jascha Heifetz once said to me: “The main thing is to pay the composer for their work, but you don’t have to conduct it.” I replied – no, you can’t do that. If I have invited a composer to write a piece, I can’t refuse to conduct it. I don’t have to perform it again, but I’ll do it once.

Conductors might not like a soloist they have to perform with. I haven’t come up against this problem for a long time, because I only perform with people I love. But, in my youth, I had to perform with everyone, I didn’t have a choice. Sometimes, the conductor doesn’t agree with a soloist’s musical choices during a concert, but that’s the artist’s personal interpretation, and the conductor has to remain professional in this situation. At the end of the evening, we have to bow together in front of the audience.

Which contemporary composers’ pieces, which you have recently conducted, have pleasantly surprised you?

Ioseb Bardanashvili (born 1948 – J.J.), who has Georgian and Israeli roots, composes very interesting music. The Israel Philharmonic regularly collaborates with new Israeli composers.

In February and March in Berlin, I conducted the wonderful Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös’ concerto for percussion and orchestra, Speaking Drums. We performed it with the Berlin Philharmonic and the phenomenal percussionist Martin Grubinger. He’s such an artist! The audience was jubilant, and the orchestral musicians loved the piece. I also gave me great joy.

While I was recovering from my operation, I didn’t conduct for nearly two years. I am gradually returning to it. On May 3rd, 4th and 11th, I will be conducting Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, and Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor on May 17th in the same place – which is seen as one of his greatest works. I can’t wait for these concerts.

During these two years spent in peace and quiet, did you miss conducting?

Oh yes! But the music kept playing – not a day went by when I wasn’t thinking about it. Every evening when I went to sleep, there was music playing in my head. I talked with my colleagues and friends the whole time. They visited me several times in Los Angeles, where I live. Conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim flew twice from Berlin to see me. The violinists Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman came to visit. I was with my closest friends; they supported me.

I want to ask you a philosophical question – what does a conductor do in front of the orchestra? What is his metaphysical role?

The conductor provides communication. First, he communicates with the orchestra. Second, through the music he communicates with the audience. To do that, the conductor has to have deep knowledge of the music, style and history. You can’t conduct Mozart if you haven’t read his letters. Preparing for the performance of his Great Mass in Milan, I am re-reading everything I can. Mozart wrote fourteen masses, and this was the last. Mozart’s father was very angry when Wolfgang Amadeus married Constanze. Mozart wrote this mass to reconcile with his father. He brought Constanze to Salzburg. After this mass, he never wrote another sacred opus, aside from his short, wonderfully beautiful motet Ave verum corpus, around half a year before his death. To perform Mozart, a conductor has to know all of this.

My teacher taught me: when we prepare to perform a piece, we have to imagine that we’re next to the author while they’re writing it. Only then can we go deeper into both the style and the message. That’s why musicians have to read not just the score, but also everything available about each composer and each specific piece. For example – Anton Bruckner. Such an enigmatic person! A very devout person. Perhaps even too devoutly Catholic. The church is in his music, the organ is in his music.

Once, Bruckner was taking the train to Linz, and he had the manuscript of the Eighth Symphony with him. Bruckner wasn’t that good looking, he hadn’t had any luck with getting married. But he liked every girl he met on his way. That time on the train, he saw an attractive Austrian girl. She alighted at a station before Linz, and Bruckner jumped out of the train to follow her. He left his score on the train. When he realised this, he returned to the station to call the next station and ask them to collect his manuscript. Can you imagine what would have happened if he had lost the manuscript for his Eighth Symphony because of this girl?! When I conduct this masterpiece, I remember this event every time. It’s one of the most wonderful opuses of the romantic era. After this, he composed his Ninth Symphony, which he didn’t finish. It’s dedicated to God. Bruckner’s faith must be noticeable in the conductor’s interpretation. Regardless of whether the conductor is a believer or not, Bruckner’s Catholicism has to be audible.

That’s my musical life – I think about it all non-stop. In December 2018 and January 2019, I conducted Brahms’ symphony and concerto cycle with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I grew up in India listening to Brahms. I discovered Bruckner and Wagner in Vienna, Mozart’s operas too. But I have known Brahms since I was ten, twelve. My father had recordings of all Brahms’ music. We listened to it sitting next to each other and following the score. My father explained which instruments and groups were playing. The sound quality wasn’t good, but the tempo was precise – they were the recordings of maestros Toscanini and Furtwangler. I got to know the music of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky through the recordings of conductor Serge Koussevitzky.

That was the knowledge I had when I came to Vienna. I knew more than some of my coursemates. My advantage was that, in Bombay, I hadn’t heard a good symphony orchestra. So I didn’t have any preconceptions of how this music ought to sound in concert The first orchestra I heard in concert was the best orchestra in the world – the Vienna Philharmonic.

My classmates from other countries – the US, the UK, Japan – had heard the orchestras in their cities, they had something to compare it to. I didn’t have this experience. I heard it all for the first time in Vienna. No other orchestra plays Bruckner like the Vienna Philharmonic, those musicians love every note, every tremolo.

Since 1961, I have conducted both the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras every year. That’s 58 years! The Berlin Philharmonic made me Conductor Emeritus this year. The Vienna Philharmonic gave me this title in 2001. I am proud of that. In November, I’ll be going to Japan with the Berlin Philharmonic to play Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8. I have many plans, I’m still young!

In symphonic music, we hear how the instrumentalists play. In opera, we can hear how the singers perform. Do you think we can ever really hear the conductor? How do different conductors “sound”?

You can certainly hear the conductor’s philosophy. Their interpretation. Josef Krips was a wonderful conductor, and he always said: “My Fidelio,” “My Heroic Symphony,” my this, my that. I’m not so arrogant. I offer an interpretation of the great works, bearing in mind their instructions. Schubert wrote nine symphonies, but didn’t hear any of them, so his scores don’t have any corrections, comments or notes. This means that the conductor who performs his symphonies has to know all of Schubert’s repertoire, his chamber music and songs. Mozart’s scores also don’t have many remarks – he composed quickly and often. A piece was finished – and that’s it! He didn’t have time to correct, expand or add. But Beethoven has lots of corrections and instructions, Brahms too.

Soon, in Berlin, I will look at the manuscript for Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor. It doesn’t have all the parts of the piece, but I’ll be able to see some of the composer’s notes. Mozart wrote solfege exercises for his wife Constanze, and he included some of these in the score of the mass. There is a lot of coloratura in what he composed for his wife. Reviews of the performance of the mass mention that Constanze was not such a good singer… Mozart really wanted to show his wife’s talent off to his father.

The motet I mentioned earlier, Ave verum corpus, was written by Mozart for a choir from Baden, near Vienna. Constanze was there undergoing spa treatments while she was pregnant with her sixth child. Now, when I conduct Mozart’s unfinished Requiem, I stop the piece where Mozart stopped composing, and perform Ave verum corpus as the final part. Earlier – like everyone – I conducted the finished version of the Requiem by Mozart’s student Franz Xaver Süssmayr, but I no longer do this.

How can the audience tell if a conductor is good or not?

By listening to the music, enjoying the sound and not looking at the conductor. If you’re a musician and know the score, your approach to evaluating it can be analytical: was the reprise of Beethoven’s Heroic Symphony logical, was there a modulation in the middle of the first movement… But the audience usually doesn’t analyse that. Musicians know that Beethoven uses a G-flat tonality in the first movement of the Heroic Symphony – before then, no one had ever done anything like that in a classical symphony. It’s Beethoven’s revolution. From the first note, the Heroic Symphony is a revolution – no introduction, just two chords before the main theme started. Before then, all symphonies had an introduction – both for Haydn and Mozart, except for the two final ones. Musicians and musicologists have to know and understand this, but the audience hears it differently.

Lose yourself in the music, try to understand its message. Just don’t look at the conductor, it doesn’t help you understand anything. Listen! Follow the development of the sound lead by the conductor. Nowadays, orchestras are very flexible, they can change the sound, and that is also, of course, dependent on the conductor. If the conductor has no deep knowledge about creating a sound, or they don’t feel what should be accented in each opus or what message should be passed on, they will simply allow the orchestra to play – if the tempo they choose is good, the musicians will play.