"And who was against me? Heifetz! Heifetz told board members that the musicians would not take care of these instruments, and it's a very bad idea.
"He was so wrong! Musicians have taken care of these instruments like they are their children. They are still in absolute top condition. And now they're in the hands of a third generation. In other words, musicians have come and gone, but the voice is there still."
Mehta takes great pleasure in recounting how he got the L.A. Phil a recording contract with Decca. The orchestra released three or four LPs a year for a decade. Show pieces were favored, and the sound quality was so glorious that the original LPs have become collectors' items.
The idea had been to entice the city to underwrite the recordings, and Mehta recalls when he and Dorothy Chandler went to ask powerful Mayor Sam Yorty for funding.
"But he wanted to make a deal with her," Mehta says, "because The Times was very critical of him, especially for all the traveling he was doing. So he asked her, in front of me, to tell The Times to stop criticizing him. 'No more cartoons,' he said, 'and I'll support the recordings.'
"And, of course, she told him to go to hell."
The cost to record was $52 per player a session. "It's nothing!," Mehta remembers. "So I reached an agreement with Decca that we would pay $26 and they would pay $26."
Oddly for someone who for a while was nicknamed "Zubie Baby," Mehta sees himself as not being all that musically adventurous and says he often had to be encouraged to do the more flamboyant things for which he became known. His chief encourager was the irrepressible Ernest Fleischmann, whom Mehta enticed to L.A. from London in 1969.
I note how deeply Mehta seemed to have bonded with his new general manager. "We got along," Mehta says. "And we didn't get along. On a daily basis. There were such discussions and such arguments. But a lot of things were born out of that. Ideas that happened here first."
Among those ambitiously venturesome notions were marathon concerts, beginning in 1970 with one of Beethoven from 10 a.m to 10 p.m. Fleischmann cooked up their famous "Star Wars" concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 1977, when the orchestra had to vacate the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the Academy Awards.
"That was by sheer chance," Mehta recounts. "We had nothing to do.
"So we thought, 'Let's give a children's concert at the Bowl.' And Ernest said, 'Look, every child loves "Star Wars."' What happened is that the children came with parents, and in the end there were 17,000 people."
It started a phenomenon. Soon "Star Wars" concerts were given all over America, and then the world. From that one event was born the kind of movie-score event concerts that remain popular today.
"I only did it once in my life," Mehta is quick to point out. "That concert was meant for children, and I never did that concert again."
However much convincing Mehta may have needed for such projects, there is no question that he and Fleischmann treated the L.A. Phil as a uniquely activist organization, willing even to take political stances.
I ask Mehta about the orchestra performing at UCLA as part of the protests against the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. "Those players were volunteers from the orchestra," Mehta explains, "but there were many. We had a chorus too."
That was just one of Mehta's many run-ins. The Times' longtime music critic Martin Bernheimer was his nemesis, a relationship that Mehta believes got off on the wrong foot from their first interview. During his time with the New York Philharmonic, that city's press could be vicious, writing that the conductor introduced a sloppiness into the city's high-gloss orchestra and that he was too much of a showman.
But some critics have mellowed. His concerts with the L.A. Phil in recent years have revealed a musical deepening. And as far as the orchestra is concerned, he is a singular father figure.
During his 16 years here he hired 86 musicians, 12 of whom still play with the Phil. He championed much more new music than he is sometimes given credit for, and he determinedly featured such L.A. composers as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Lukas Foss (when he taught at UCLA), William Kraft (the orchestra's principal percussionist) and Frank Zappa. Mehta was even one of the earliest champions of Gustavo Dudamel, bringing him to the Israel Philharmonic at the very beginning of the young Venezuelan's career.
The Mehtas own two villas in Tuscany, Italy. As the conductor of many podiums, as with so many performers, he is a man of the world.
But I ask whether he still considers L.A. home.
"Absolutely," Mehta insists. "I have never stopped conducting the orchestra. I am here whenever I can be. And it's my tax home."