Bombay born and Vienna trained, debonair enough to impress Hollywood and with a swashbuckling podium style, Zubin Mehta conducted his first concert as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic 50 years ago. On Nov. 15, 1962, he was 26, the youngest music director in the orchestra's history, but to observers inside the Philharmonic Auditorium, Mehta came off as unshakably self-confident and strikingly capable. In six more years he would make the cover of Time magazine, an extraordinary feat for a conductor of any age.
Thursday night, Mehta and the L.A. Phil will celebrate that anniversary by re-creating the program of Mozart, Hindemith and Dvorák that marked the beginning of his 16 seasons with the orchestra. During those often freewheeling and certainly controversial years, the L.A. Phil rose to a position of international prominence it had never before known. The orchestra's reputation for being a proudly visionary institution begins here.
Fifty years on, including a rocky 13 seasons at the helm of the New York Philharmonic, Mehta is mostly found overseas. He is known for his loyalty. He has headed the Israel Philharmonic since 1977 and holds the title music director for life. He has been chief conductor of the Maggio Musicale in Florence since 1985.
But he remains an Angeleno. Late last summer, in a rare two full weeks at his Brentwood home, I find a relatively relaxed Mehta, looking more fit than he has in years. He greets me a little groggily in his garden on a warm September morning by asking me to remind him why I was there.
"It's to talk about your 50th anniversary with the L.A. Phil," I remind him. "Isn't it 60?" Mehta asks. "It was 1962."
My hope was to jog his memories about his early days in L.A. Fortunately once warmed up, he becomes loquacious, theatrical, funny and willing to spill a couple of beans.
He was not inclined, however, to revisit the circumstances behind his appointment as music director.
Early in 1961, Dorothy Chandler, head of the orchestra (and wife of Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler), appointed Mehta principal guest conductor after he had made a strong impression as a dashing 23-year-old fill-in for an ailing Fritz Reiner. The orchestra had already named the dynamic Hungarian conductor Georg Solti to be its music director. But Dorothy Chandler had failed to consult Solti over her Mehta appointment, and Solti, feeling slighted, resigned in a huff.
Already smitten by Mehta's conducting, an unfazed Dorothy Chandler engaged him to conduct at the Hollywood Bowl and then offered him the top job. His experience was limited. Los Angeles — then home to any number of great musicians including conductor Bruno Walter, violinist Jascha Heifetz and composer Igor Stravinsky — was a big and ripe plum.
"I was a young conductor without a repertoire," Mehta explains. "I knew a lot of pieces, but I had never conducted them." That first concert is one he ascribes to "the folly of youth" and says he frankly can't remember how it went.
Early on a senior member of the orchestra said that seven musicians who had become dead weight had to go. George Kuyper, the orchestra's manager, told Mehta that would be OK.
"So we gave them notice," he recounts, "and there was such an uproar. A young conductor before he starts, how dare you fire seven people."
Instead, they were put on probation, Mehta recalls. "And I had to make music with them every day. It took a few months, and then everything was OK."
When Mehta began, the orchestra performed in a reconverted church while the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was under construction. Mehta opened the gleaming hall in 1964 — his soloist was Heifetz — and that ushered the orchestra into a new era. But it was a lengthy process.
Mehta describes the ensemble he inherited as not technically great. "But there were wonderful musicians, and they had a lot of experience," he insists. "The solo chairs of this orchestra when I took over were superb musicians from whom I learned a lot."
Mehta's ambition for the orchestra was to create a velvety Viennese sound, and he takes particular pride in the instruments he obtained to help make that happen. He inspired, he says, the clarinetist Michele Zukovsky to change to a Viennese clarinet, which she still uses in the orchestra. "The beautiful sound she makes," Mehta enthuses, "that's Vienna."
He takes responsibility for being the first to bring German trumpets, with their rotary valves and a distinct sound, to a major American orchestra. "I smuggled a mouthpiece out from Vienna," he admits. "It was like a state secret. And then I bought the violins. Without batting an eye — I had no one to discuss it with even — I said I'm going to buy instruments."
The orchestra had been given a bequest of $100,000 a year, so Mehta and concertmaster David Frisina went to Europe on buying sprees. Prices were a fraction of what they would be today, and the pair loaded up with classic old Italian instruments.
"Guarneris were $10,000, $12,000," Mehta notes. He recalls buying a Stradivarius cello for $50,000.