Zubin Mehta offered a simple reason for placing himself in this city under siege--it was, he said, a sense of duty and honor: “I have literally grown up with this country over the past 30 years. I had many obligations in New York that should have prevented me from coming, but I couldn’t imagine not being here.”
Mehta showed up unexpectedly in Tel Aviv last week on the eve of a war that has since involved several Iraqi Scud missile attacks on Israel. When thousands of foreigners were fleeing the Middle East in anticipation of war , Mehta decided to demonstrate his solidarity with the members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he is music director for life, and the people of Israel and by being with them. In 1967, during the Six-Day War, he also flew to Israel to demonstrate his support for Israelis.
Mehta’s trip to Israel meant missing several Philharmonic concerts weekly, but when interviewed on Tuesday, he said he planned to stay at least a few more days. “Sunday, Jan. 27, is Mozart’s birthday,” he said. “I was supposed to do a nationally televised concert in his honor.”
Instead, he planned to rehearse with the Israel Philharmonic, which he has directed since 1980. He was hoping to give at least one concert before returning to New York, but government emergency measures prohibit mass gatherings. Special permission would be needed for a concert.
“Tel Aviv literally shuts down after sundown every night,” Mehta said. “If 3,000 people came to a concert and there was an alarm, there would be panic.”
Nevertheless, he and the orchestra members hoped early in the week that the Israel Philharmonic might provide psychological support. “It’s hard to imagine that people want to go out at night, but maybe we can perform in the afternoon or early evening,” said Israel Philharmonic first violinist Lazar Shuster. “We have to run our lives as normally as possible, and music is an important part of life in Israel.”
Mehta felt confident that he made the right decision to come to Tel Aviv. “If I had been rehearsing and giving concerts in New York at this time,” the maestro said, “I would have felt like a fish out of water.”
Mehta’s popularity in Israel was evidenced by the number of people stopping him on the street to thank him for coming. His admirers include many public figures, ranging from Housing Minister Ariel Sharon to Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kolleck.
“If someone needed morale-boosting,” Kolleck said, “Zubin is the one to provide it. No one is more welcome than him at this time.”
Speaking in the lobby of the Jerusalem Hilton, Mehta explained that as he prepared to fly to New York from Vienna on Jan. 16, he felt an urgent need to go east rather than west.
“I had a rehearsal in New York that morning,” Mehta said. “I was supposed to catch the Concorde in Paris and go straight to the rehearsal.
“The urgency of what was happening compelled me to turn back and go to Israel,” he said. He exchanged his Concorde ticket for a seat on a flight to Tel Aviv.
“At first my family was worried,” Mehta said, “but now they understand.”
His father, Mehli Mehta, director of the American Youth Symphony in Los Angeles, said Wednesday morning from his home in L.A. that he had just gotten off the phone with his son. “He’s plenty worried, but he would continue to stay there if he did not have to come back . . . “Listen, he will be 55 years old in April. I don’t tell him what to do, we just pray that God will take care of him.”
Daniel Cariaga contributed to this report.