He has led prominent orchestras in sold-out concerts across the world, racked up a slew of accolades including India’s Tagore Award and has met countless dignitaries the likes of former US President George W Bush and Queen Sofia of Spain; even on the cusp of 80, legendary conductor Zubin Mehta, shows no signs of slowing down just yet.
This month, he will conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at the Esplanade Concert Hall for a one-night-only performance. Following that, he is scheduled to perform with the Filarmonica della Scala in Italy in May and in October, with the Wiener Philharmoniker in Japan. “Music communicates [to the world] and [imparts] a certain strength and inner healing to people,” says Mehta.
His Singapore concert with the 110-member Israel Philharmonic will feature a repertoire of masterpieces with French, German and Russian origins. Highlights include Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No 3, a dramatic, rousing number that Mehta describes as “one of the greatest pieces of music ever composed” and Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, a tune that begins with a cheerful waltz before descending into dark, frenetic chaos in its final minutes.
Ticket sales have been brisk, which comes as no surprise, considering that Mehta’s 2014 performance with the Israel Philharmonic at the Marina Bay Sands’ MasterCard Theatres was a full-house. That concert was the orchestra’s first in the nation. “Singapore is a very important [country] to us. So when we were invited again, we immediately said yes,” says Mehta.
This month’s concert has added significance — it marks his and the Israel Philharmonic’s 80th birthdays. Having worked with the orchestra for 46 years and with all musicians handpicked by him, the ensemble holds a special place in his heart. “The orchestra is like my family. Every member was engaged by me and we have played over 3,000 concerts. You can imagine how well-knit we are,” he says. “The orchestra knows every little gesture from me. Conducting is communication and communication after 3,000 concerts takes on a new meaning.”
Born in Bombay (present-day Mumbai), Mehta grew up surrounded by classical music. His father Mehli was a violinist and the founder of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra, while his mother Tehmina played the piano. “I heard music in my home from the beginning — almost from birth. It was a great brainwashing,” he says with a chuckle. “Music was always in my home because my father taught and played music.”
Despite this, his parents were pragmatic and encouraged him to pursue the more conventional path of becoming a doctor. But while taking premedical classes in Bombay, the then 18-year-old Mehta felt it wasn’t his calling. “My thoughts were always of music,” he explains. So he spoke to his parents and with their support, he enrolled at Vienna’s Akademie für Musik (now University of Music and Performing Arts). There, he studied piano and double bass, and learnt conducting from renowned maestro Hans Swarowsky. Due to its power in connecting with both the orchestra and audience, conducting soon became his passion. “The conductor communicates the will of the composer to the orchestra,” says Mehta. “He has to interpret the music of the composer. And if the orchestra is convinced of the conductor’s intentions, the audience feels it very strongly.”
After graduation, he made his professional debut guest-conducting the Tonkünstler Orchestra of Vienna. His big break came in 1958, when he bagged top honours at the Liverpool International Conducting Competition organised by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, which scored him an assistant conductor position with the orchestra. As his repute grew, prominent ensembles the likes of the Vienna Philharmonic, Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic came knocking, boosting his nascent career. By the age of 25, Mehta had conducted the Vienna, Berlin and Israel Philharmonic orchestras, and went on to be named music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic.
It was in 1969 that he was appointed music advisor to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and eight years later, its music director. He has worked so closely with them that in 1981, it awarded him the title of music director for life. Over the course of four decades, Mehta and the orchestra has toured five continents and performed with international superstars such as Andrea Bocelli and Renée Fleming.
“A conductor has to know the style, orchestration and how to balance the orchestra. A lot of work goes on when one comes onstage and faces the public,” says Mehta. “What’s most rewarding is when the orchestra really gets it, is convinced of the conductor’s interpretation [of the music] and delivers each intention of the composer in a perfect way.”
Apart from his work with the Israel Philharmonic, Mehta is honorary conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Staatskapelle Berlin. He has won numerous accolades such as the Praemium Imperiale, an art prize from the imperial family of Japan, and India’s Padma Vibhushan — the country’s second-highest civilian award. His most treasured memento is the “Nikisch-Ring”, which was bequeathed to him by the late Austrian conductor Karl Böhm. “This [ring] is very close to my heart, as it once belonged to the great early 20th-century conductor Arthur Nikisch,” says Mehta. “Karl Böhm left it to me in his will and it’s something I’m very proud to have.” Mehta also received his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2011. “They have thousands of stars but only a few classical musicians. I’m proud to be one of them,” he says.
Outside of work, the Los Angeles-based Mehta is co-chairman of the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation in Mumbai, where children are taught Western classical music, and is also involved in the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music in Tel Aviv, which nurtures budding musicians in Israel. The school is the result of a partnership between Tel Aviv University and the Israel Philharmonic. Mehta also recently launched the paperback edition to his 2009 autobiography The Score of My Life.
Classical music aficionados can be assured of a rousing show at his upcoming performance here. “I’m very happy to come back to Singapore and am looking forward to the concert…the orchestra has such a big repertoire, but we’re [showcasing] the masterpieces we play best,” he says.