Zubin Mehta has a lifetime commitment to Israeli orchestra In Perfect Harmony


Chicago -- While Zubin Mehta's lifetime appointment as music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is a rare and exalted honor, few conductors would have the patience for it. Fewer still would have the courage.

If any conductor and orchestra were to be a target for a terrorist's bomb, it would be Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic.

Mehta's appearance with the orchestra Tuesday evening at the Kennedy Center will be marked by the presence of metal detectors and will be attended by armed Israeli and American plainclothes security.

For Mehta, this is merely business as usual.

"Since 1969, I've spent three months of every year in Israel -- that's one-fourth of my life," says Mehta, 58. "I've been through the country's ups and downs, and while I don't always agree with everything the government does, I love the fact that in a democracy like Israel, you're always free to disagree."

Mehta's life appointment -- the only one of its kind in recent history -- came after Israel's controversial invasion of Lebanon in 1982. At a time when Israel's international standing was at an all-time low, and the country itself was bitterly divided, Mehta canceled engagements elsewhere to conduct the philharmonic. In gratitude, the orchestra -- which is run by the musicians themselves as a cooperative -- made him conductor for life.

"His commitment to the country and to the philharmonic is something I've never heard of in another orchestra," says bass player Gabriel Vole, the orchestra's personnel manager. "He knows all the first names and family names of every musician, as well as those of their wives and husbands and children. He's participated in many happy days -- weddings and bar-mitzvahs. He's part of us."

Thus it was almost inevitable that Mehta would negotiate the political hurdles necessary to enable the Israel Philharmonic to begin performing the music of Richard Strauss.

Although Mehta is one of the great interpreters of Strauss, Tuesday evening's performance -- the beginning of the orchestra's U.S. tour -- will be the first time Americans have the chance to hear Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic play one of his works.

Strauss' mighty autobiographical tone poem, "Ein Heldenleben," which occupies the entire second half of the program, translates as "A Hero's Life." But Strauss, who cooperated all too willingly (at least initially) with the propagandists of the Third Reich, is no hero in Israel. Until this season, performances of his music, along with that of Richard Wagner, had been forbidden.

Almost all orchestral musicians love the music of Strauss and Wagner, however, and the Israelis are no exception. When the ban on Strauss was lifted last September, the musicians responded with all the signs of first love. Their performance of "Heldenleben" in Tokyo in October electrified the audience and the music critics, who declared that it had not been performed so brilliantly since Fritz Reiner's heyday with the Chicago Symphony in the 1950s.

"When the New York Philharmonic performs 'Heldenleben,' it's great," Mehta says. "But when we play it, it's as if Strauss wrote it yesterday. I feel a wild energy throughout the orchestra, and I just give the musicians their head."

The orchestra also wants to perform Wagner. But that's not likely to happen soon, says Mehta, whose own passion for Wagner is signified by his presence in Chicago, where he is rehearsing "Siegfried" as part of his four-year project to stage the monumental "Ring" cycle with the Chicago Lyric Opera.

In light of Mehta's interest in Wagner's music, it's something of an irony that the Israel Philharmonic is the one orchestra with which he cannot perform it.

Although his music is regularly heard on radio broadcasts, performances of Wagner continue to be forbidden because of the composer's notorious anti-Semitism. Wagner's Jew-baiting tracts were essential in forming the thinking of the young Adolf Hitler, and his music was heard on loudspeakers as Jews arrived at the death camps and when they were later marched to the gas chambers.

"Proscribing Strauss was purely political," Mehta says. "At best, one could say of Strauss that he was a fool who was deluded by villains; at worst, that he was an opportunist. The issue of Wagner is much stickier. Hitler may have misunderstood Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but -- unfortunately -- he understood the psychotic ravings of Wagner all too well."

In 1981, Mehta performed Wagner in Israel -- as an encore. He told the audience what he was about to do, letting it know that those who were offended could leave. The resulting storm of protest made front-page news as far away as New York and Tokyo.

An emotional issue

"Wagner is a purely emotional issue in Israel," Mehta says. "But it's an important one, and we learned that we cannot insult those who come to hear us and who still have numbers on their arms."

Mehta's history with the Israel Philharmonic began when the 25-year-old conductor filled in as a last-minute replacement for an indisposed Carlo Maria Giulini.

"I began going there in 1961, and I've practically grown up with the country," says Mehta, who conducts the orchestra for a "symbolic fee" and frequently for no fee at all.

During times of crisis, he has left wherever he was to return to Israel. In 1967's Six-Day War, he replaced -- on 24 hours' notice -- the fleeing Erich Leinsdorf. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he returned again to conduct concerts almost every night. And in 1991, during the Persian Gulf war, he canceled concerts with the New York Philharmonic to fill in for yet another conductor, braving Scud missile attacks in more than 20 daytime concerts with the Israelis.

"If we hadn't played those concerts, the subscribers would have demanded their money back," Mehta says matter-of-factly. "Besides, the Israel Philharmonic is my orchestra."

And Israel is his land -- even though he travels on an Indian passport, maintains a home in Los Angeles and has been a citizen of the world since he left Bombay in 1954 to study in Vienna.

In many ways, Mehta is the perfect conductor for the best-known cultural institution of an embattled country. Among the world's genuine superstar conductors, he has been a perpetual outsider. Mehta and his family are Parsis -- descendants of Zoroastrians, monotheists who are theological first cousins of the Jews -- who fled Persia because of religious persecution by the Islamic majority in the eighth century. They settled in Bombay.

Now reduced in number to about 70,000, the Parsis have traditionally been prosperous, well-educated and cosmopolitan. Unlike most Indians, who have remained steeped in their own musical traditions, the Parsis, after the importation of phonograph records in the 1930s, adopted the music of the West.

Family music

The conductor's father, Mehli, was the founder of the Bombay Symphony and is now music director of the American Youth Symphony in Los Angeles. His brother, Zarin, is the executive director of Chicago's Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony.

Mehta's rise to the top was among the most spectacular in history. By the time he was 25, he had conducted both the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics. Besides a photographic memory, an infallible sense of rhythm and a superb baton technique, his magnetic good looks and fiery temperament made him a galvanic presence on the podium. The distinguished Viennese conductor Josef Krips hailed him as "the next Toscanini," and the great Russian Kiril Kondrashin called him "probably the best conductor alive."

At the precocious age of 26, he was appointed music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1962. Mehta transformed it into one of the country's best orchestras by the time he departed to become music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1978.

But Mehta's glamour, media celebrity and lifestyle -- in his early years in Los Angeles he acquired a reputation for appreciating fast cars and beautiful women -- made him a convenient target for New York's music critics. "Slick," "superficial" and "uninspired" were the words used by New York's critical fraternity, as it devoured Mehta as it had devoured every philharmonic music director -- Leonard Bernstein, among them -- since Toscanini.

Mehta departed at the conclusion of the 1990-1991 season.

"I think I was completely misunderstood," he says. "But that is not why I left. If I had been influenced by the gentlemen of the press, I would have left earlier. It's more the case that I don't think I could have endured hearing another audition."

Major projects

Freedom from his responsibilities in New York has allowed Mehta to devote himself to several large-scale projects. Since he left the philharmonic, he has worked on the "Ring" in Chicago, conducted a cycle of Mozart operas in Florence, and begun work on new productions of Verdi and Wagner operas for Berlin and Vienna.

But he always finds the time for his music-directorship-for-life in Tel Aviv and for Israel itself.

"You can read all you want about Israel in the front pages," Mehta says. "But when the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra plays, we show the country in a new light, and this is very important."

That is why he was on the podium in Oslo last September when the Norwegian government organized a peace concert to celebrate the first anniversary of the handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat, which marked the beginning of official negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Mehta led the Oslo Philharmonic and a chorus of 50 Israeli and 50 Palestinian children, dressed in identical T-shirts, in a "Song for Peace" composed for the occasion.

Arafat and Rabin only shook hands again, but the PLO leader actually embraced Mehta.

"In the Middle East, things are changing all the time," the conductor says with a smile. "Who would have thought that Arafat would have ever given me a hug!"


Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic with violin soloist Midori

When: Tuesday at 8:30 p.m.

Where: Concert Hall in the Kennedy Center

Tickets: $32-$55

Phone: (202) 833-9800


To hear excerpts of Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic in the third movement from Brahms' Symphony No. 3, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6146 after you hear the greeting.

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