Mehli Mehta Marks 80 Musical Years

Mehli Mehta, music director of the American Youth Symphony, turns 80 on Sunday. In honor of the occasion the AYS board, affiliates and other friends are giving him a birthday banquet at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

“I don’t know anything about what’s going to happen there,” Mehta said, almost apologetically, relaxing last week in the memento-filled living room of the Westwood home he and wife Tehmi have shared for 20 years.

“I will just go, as a good, obedient husband and friend.”

Actually, to use the word relax in connection with Mehta is not entirely accurate: Even in repose, his gestures and facial expressions are animated, and he jumps up now and again to show a visitor some of the family photos on display, a musical score from an upcoming concert, and a magazine cover featuring son Zubin, the other conductor in the Mehta family (younger son, Zarin, is executive director of the Montreal Symphony).


“There is probably no greater dynamo of a person in the whole musical world,” said Ernest Fleischmann, executive director of the L.A. Philharmonic, whose current roster boasts eight AYS alumni.

“Mehli never sits still, physically or mentally, for a minute. Years ago (early 1969, when Mehta suffered two heart attacks in four months), doctors told him he shouldn’t conduct another concert--and how many has he done since then?”

Added longtime friend, composer John Green, who is 15 days Mehta’s junior, “Mehli’s boundless energy and fervent enthusiasm match the great gifts God gave him--being a fine violinist, an excellent violin teacher, and having the qualities of leadership and will power. His determination is inspirational.”

For his part, Mehta says he is always surprised at such remarks. “A conductor of any age has to be energetic, and he has to transfer that energy--artistic, physical and musical--so that his musicians can respond and in turn transfer it to the audience.”


Mehta has led the AYS since 1964, the same year he came to UCLA from the Curtis String Quartet in Philadelphia to succeed Lukas Foss as director of the UCLA Orchestra, a position he held until his 1976 retirement.

The veteran musician builds each season around a theme, such as notable fifth symphonies or the music of one composer. This season, which begins Oct. 30 in Royce Hall, will highlight the complete tone poems of Richard Strauss.

“I do this because, as a training orchestra, the players must know things that will be required at professional auditions, and we cover a lot of the masterpieces this way,” he explained.

Mehta’s interpretations are based on copious research, he noted. “A conductor must really understand the composer’s idiom, language and philosophy, not just for the one work he is performing, but for all the composer’s music. We’ve never done anything half-hearted, half-baked.”


Indeed, some reviewers have felt that Mehta and Company perhaps go too full out, that the orchestra is raucous sounding. The conductor bristles at the notion.

“They dwell on the loud, fast sections, but what about the soft, lyrical things we do? It’s not raucous, but when a big orchestra gets going, it’s bound to be loud.”

Whatever the volume, Mehta insists on conducting all his performances from memory.

“Does a doctor look in his medical books when he writes a prescription? Does an attorney consult his law books in the midst of a trial? I come from what I call the golden age of music, when no one used a score. Today’s great conductors--let’s even leave my darling son Zubin out of it--but Abbado, Maazel, Ozawa, all conduct from memory.”


Why has so much of Mehli Mehta’s career encompassed working with young musicians? He smiles.

“One develops a special knack for it, and also, patience. God sends us on missions. I’ve dealt with young people all my life. That’s my destiny.”