Conductor, music director
Zubin Mehta is part of a group of conductors—one that includes Lorin Maazel, Seiji Ozawa, Claudio Abbado, André Previn, and Daniel Barenboim—that succeeded older luminaries such as George Szell, Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti, and Eugene Ormandy in carrying on the American orchestral tradition while infusing it with freshness and vitality. At a time when ticket sales and subscriptions are down, conductors who can woo audiences—and win admiration from orchestra boards—are as sought after as major league pitchers; Mehta’s name appears on nearly every short list made when a new conductor search is launched.
Mehta was born in 1936 in Bombay, India. His father was a violinist and founder of the Bombay Symphony. He attended college with the intention of becoming a doctor, but his plans, perhaps in an instance of predestination, changed; he was quoted as saying in the New York Times, “My father used to train every section of his orchestra at home, and so I grew up with the orchestra as an instrument. I didn’t have perfect pitch. I preferred playing cricket to practicing the piano. But by the time I was 18, I knew that I had to take up music.”
In 1954, Mehta went to Vienna to study at the world-renowned Academy of Music. He took conducting instruction from Hans Swarowsky, a pupil of the composer Richard Strauss, and lessons on double bass from Otto Rühm. Mehta also studied conducting in the late 1950s at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, Italy, first with Carlo Zecchi and later with Alceo Galliera.
He won first place in the Liverpool International Conductors’ Competition in England in 1958; this brought him a one-year assistant conducting position there. By 1961, he had become music director of the Montreal Symphony in Canada, and in 1962, he took on a concurrent appointment with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Mehta turned both ensembles into first-class symphonies, raising ticket sales and visibility.
In 1978, Mehta began an engagement with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, considered by many the best ensemble of its kind in North America. When he took over the Philharmonic, critics and audiences were thrilled that a dynamic conductor known for his interpretations of late Romantic works would replace the ascetic, hyper-modern Pierre Boulez. “Under Mehta’s spell,” wrote Hubert Saal in Newsweek, “the Philharmonic has been born again.”
Nonetheless, within two seasons critics began to carp—testimony, perhaps, to the notoriously fickle nature of symphony audiences and critics—and in 1985, Peter G. Davis remarked in New York magazine: “Does anyone care anymore? Mehta has few champions in the
Born April 29, 1936, in Bombay, India; son of Mehli Nowrowji (a violinist and conductor) and Tehmina Duruvala Mehta; married Carmen Lasky (divorced); married Nancy Kovack, 1969; children: (first marriage) Merwan (son), Zarina (daughter). Education: Attended St. Xavier’s College, Bombay; Vienna Academy of Music, beginning in 1954; and Accademia Chigiana, Siena, Italy, late 1950s.
Held conductor posts in Yugoslavia, Belgium, and England, 1950s; music director, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, 1961-67, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, 1962-78, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, 1978-90, and Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, 1969—appointed director for life, 1981; appeared as conductor at festivals of Spoleto, Vienna, Prague, Los Angeles, and Salzburg; made regular guest appearances with Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras; appeared as conductor with Montreal, Metropolitan, and Covent Garden opera companies. Conducted tenors José Carerras, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti in World Cup performance, Los Angeles, 1994.
Awards: First place, Liverpool International Conductors’ Competition, 1958; recipient of Padma Bhushan (India), Medaille d’Or Vermeil (Paris), and Commandre des Arts et des Lettres (France); honorary degrees from Tel Aviv University, Weizmann Institute of Science, Princeton University, Westminster Choir College, Hebrew University, Jewish Theological Seminary, Brooklyn College, and Colgate University.
Addresses: Office —Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, P.O. Box 11292, 1 Huberman St., 61112 Tel Aviv, Israel.
music press, and even his most vocal detractors, at one time a boisterous crew, have not had much to say recently.... Whatever controversy remains is carried on in a gray, listless fashion that reflects the kind of unimaginative programs and uneventful music-making heard too frequently these days in Avery Fisher Hall.” When Mehta’s second term with the Philharmonic expired in 1990, it was not renewed, and he was replaced by the German conductor Kurt Masur.
Mehta has weathered the rough tide of critical acclaim and rebuff with aplomb, always maintaining his good humor and professionalism. He is generally admired for his conducting technique, which is clear, precise, and without flamboyance, and for his deft handling of the often thorny politics of symphony orchestras—especially the demands of managers and board members. He is so beloved by the Israel Philharmonic, of which he has been music director since 1969, that he was appointed director for life in 1981.
The maestro lives in Israel with his second wife, Nancy Kovack, whom he married in 1969. He has two children from his first marriage—a son, Merwan, and a daughter, Zarina. He has won awards and citations from around the world, including numerous honorary degrees and the prestigious Commandre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government.
(Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra; Miraculous Mandarin Suite, Sony Classical, 1990.
(Israel Philharmonic Orchestra; with pianist Radu Lupu) Beethoven: Concerto No. 1 in C Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 15; Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 19, London, 1990.
(New York Philharmonic Orchestra, with New York Choral Artists) Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, RCA, 1990.
(New York Philharmonic Orchestra) Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major, CBS, 1983.
(New York Philharmonic Orchestra) Strauss: Ein Heldenleben; final scene of Salome, CBS, 1989.
(New York Philharmonic Orchestra) Stravinsky: Petrouchka (complete ballet), CBS, 1980.
Verdi: La Traviata, Philips, 1993.
Bookspan, Martin, and Ross Yockey, Zubin: The Zubin Mehta Story, Harper & Row, 1978.
Los Angeles Times, February 5, 1991.
New York, January 14, 1985; June 10, 1991.
New York Times, November 19, 1978.
Newsweek, December 18, 1978.
A native of India, Zubin Mehta (born 1936) was the conductor and director of both the New York and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut on December 29, 1965, with a highly acclaimed performance of Aida.
"Born to the baton" aptly describes the extraordinary career of Zubin Mehta. Maestro Mehta has served as music director of the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Montreal Symphony, and the Israel Philharmonic, to name a few.
Born April 29, 1936 in Bombay, India, Zubin Mehta grew up in a home filled with music. His father was a co-founder of the Bombay Symphony, and the young Mehta heard chamber music and Beethoven quartets before he heard a symphony. He learned to sing what he heard before he could read music. At the age of sixteen, Mehta began conducting concerto accompaniments, leading the orchestra when his father was away on concert tours. At eighteen, Mehta abandoned his medical studies to pursue a career in music at the Academy of Music in Vienna. "I always had the intention of becoming a conductor, not just because I wanted to wave a stick, but because orchestral music appeals to me most," he said.
By the time he was twenty-five, Mehta had conducted both the Vienna and the Berlin Philharmonics and was the music director of the Montreal Symphony. In 1962, at age twenty-six, he became the youngest conductor of a major American orchestra when the Los Angeles Philharmonic appointed him music director. In 1978, he accepted the music directorship of the New York Philharmonic. Mehta's powerful stage presence translates into a strong, provocative management style. "In Los Angeles [as compared to New York] I'm the absolute boss. It's my orchestra," he said.
During Mehta's thirteen-year tenure with the New York Philharmonic, he conducted more that one thousand concerts, and he held the post of music director longer than anyone else in the orchestra's modern history. However, his relationship with the orchestra was a stormy one.
An intriguing question is the role that being Indian has played in the success of his career. "Mehta's career in this internationally minded age has possibly profited from the exotic value attached to being the only India-born conductor to attain prominence," speculated Albert Goldberg, music critic of the Los Angeles Times. "But [Mehta] does not trade on such externals….His musical abilities alone have been sufficient," concluded Goldberg. "Zubin has one of the best techniques around," agreed Los Angeles Philharmonic tympanist William Kraft. "Even the way he holds the baton makes it easier for the orchestra to follow him." In addition to his unquestioned talent, audiences respond to Mehta's impassioned, almost spiritual, performances and to his personal magnetism. Mehta, whose name means "powerful sword," understands the importance of showmanship on stage.
Mehta retains strong ties to his native country and still retains his Indian citizenship. He has taken the New York Philharmonic to Bombay, and when the Festival of India came to the United States, its gala opening on September 11, 1985, was led by Mehta conducting the New York Philharmonic. Mehta's religious roots are also quite deep. He belongs to the Zoroastrian religion, a group commonly known in India as "Parsis" because they emigrated from Persia in the sixth through eighth centuries. There are currently about ninety thousand Zoroastrians in India, twenty-five thousand in Iran, and fifteen thousand in Pakistan. Mehta has participated in a feature-length docudrama entitled A Quest for Zarathustraon the life of Zoroaster and his religion. "It is based on my quest for knowledge of my religion," explained Mehta to John Rockwell of the New York Times.
His religious background and his membership in a minority community contribute to Mehta's strong identification with the state of Israel. "We are the Jews of India, the Persians who didn't mix," explained Mehta to Rockwell. "We enjoy the same minority complexes as the Israelis except we were not persecuted." In 1969 the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra appointed Mehta its music adviser, in 1977 its music director, and in 1981 its music director for life. Altogether he has conducted more than fifteen hundred concerts with the Israel Philharmonic.
Mehta had a mentor in his father, and he clearly has an extraordinary talent, but he also credits his success to taking opportunities when they were offered. "I made half my career by jumping in for others at the last moment. I sometimes think my success was due almost entirely to the misfortunes of my elderly colleagues," he told Goldberg.
Numerous honors have been bestowed on Mehta, including the Nikisch Ring, the Vienna Philharmonic Ring of Honor, and the Hans von Bulow medal bestowed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Mehta has been awarded the Padma Bhushan (Order of the Lotus) by the Republic of India, has received the Defender of Jerusalem Award, and is an honorary citizen of the city of Tel Aviv. He is also the only non-Israeli ever to receive the Israel Prize.
Mehta looks forward to continuing his participation on the international music scene. On June 20, 1994, from the burned out shell of the National Library in Sarajevo, Mehta conducted Sarajevo's orchestra and chorus in a benefit that was broadcast around the globe. In August 1994, he conducted a concert at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles at the close of the World Cup Soccer Tournament, a concert that brought together a trio of popular tenors Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti. He is a leader in the classical music world, staging events to bring performance of great musical works to the largest possible audience.
Bookspan, Martin, and Ross Yockey, Zubin: The Zubin Mehta Story, Harper & Row, 1978. □
Mehta, Zubin, notable Indian conductor; b. Bombay, April 29, 1936. His first mentor was his father, the Indian violinist and conductor Mehli Mehta (b. Bombay, Sept. 25, 1908). He received training in violin and piano in childhood, and at 16 had his first taste of conducting when he led a rehearsal of the Bombay Sym. Orch. He studied medicine in Bombay but the lure of music compelled him to abandon his medical training to pursue musical studies at the Vienna Academy of Music. While playing double bass in its orch., he found a conducting mentor in Swarowsky During the summers of 1956 and 1957, he also studied conducting with Carlo Zecchi and Alceo Galliera at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena. In 1957 he made his professional conducting debut with the Niederösterreichisches Tonkünstlerorchester in Vienna. He won the 1stRoyal Liverpool Phil, conducting competition in 1958, and then served for a season as its asst. conductor. In the summer of 1959 he attended the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, where he took 2nd prize in conducting. He made his North American debut conducting the Philadelphia Orch. in 1960. Later that year his successful appearances with the Montreal Sym. Orch. led to his appointment as its music director in 1961. That same year he also became assoc. conductor of the Los Angeles Phil. His London debut came later in 1961 when he appeared as a guest conductor with the Royal Phil. In 1962 he became music director of the Los Angeles Phil, while retaining his Montreal post until 1967. He made his first appearance at the Salzburg Festival in 1962. He first conducted opera in Montreal in 1964 when he led a performance of Tosca. On Dec. 29, 1965, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in N.Y. conducting Aida. In 1966 he conducted for the first time at Milan’s La Scala. He was named music advisor of the Israel Phil, in 1968. His success with that ensemble led to his appointment as its music director in 1977 and as its music director for life in 1981. He led it on major tours of Europe, North and South America, and the Far East. In 1977 he made his debut at London’s Covent Garden conducting Otello. During his tenure in Los Angeles, Mehta was glamorized in the colorful Hollywood manner. This glamoriza-tion process was abetted by his genuine personableness and his reputation as a bon vivant. As a conductor, he secured the international profile of the Los Angeles Phil, through recordings and major tours. He became particularly known for his effulgent and expansive readings of the Romantic repertoire, which he invariably conducted from memory. His success in Los Angeles led the management of the N.Y. Phil, to appoint him as music director in 1978 with the hope that he could transform that ensemble in the wake of the austere Boulez tenure. Although Mehta served as music director of the N.Y. Phil, until 1991, he was unable to duplicate the success he attained in Los Angeles. Critics acknowledged his abilities but found his interpretations often indulgent and wayward. On July 7, 1990, Mehta served as conductor of the 3 tenors extravaganza in Rome with Carreras, Domingo, and Pavarotti in a concert telecast live to the world. He returned to the N.Y. Phil, for its 150th anniversary concert on Dec. 7, 1992, when he conducted a performance of Till Eulen-spiegels lustige Streich. On July 16, 1994, he was conductor of the Carreras, Domingo, and Pavarotti reunion when he led the Los Angeles Phil, in a concert again telecast live around the globe. In 1995 he was appointed Generalmusikdirektor of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, which post he assumed in 1998. In 1997 he received the Great Silver Medal of Austria.
M. Bookspan and R. Yockey, Z.:The Z. M. Story (N.Y., 1978).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire