Mehli Mehta, 94; Youth Symphony Conductor
Mehli Mehta, the father of conductor Zubin Mehta and mentor to generations of music students through the American Youth Symphony, died Saturday at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. He was 94, and died of heart failure and other causes associated with aging.
Born in India, Mehta was a lifelong devotee of Western classical music. He discovered it as a child, and focused on it during a career of more than 60 years as a violinist, conductor and teacher with the American Youth Symphony, which he remade in 1964 and led until his retirement in 1998.
With his wife of 67 years, Tehmina, he also raised two sons who have had important roles in global classical music. One son, Zubin, former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic, is music director for life of the Israel Philharmonic and general music director of the Bavarian State Opera. The other, Zarin, former executive director of the Montreal Symphony and the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, is executive director of the New York Philharmonic.
Zubin Mehta, who maintains a home in Los Angeles, said Saturday that he had just flown in from Munich, Germany, to visit his ailing father, but arrived after his death.
“Any concert of mine that he attended, there was no doubt to whom my message was going,” the internationally famous son said. “That is what I will miss in Los Angeles, because he will not be there any more.”
Mehli Mehta last watched his son conduct in December when Zubin Mehta was guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. “It is a divine coincidence that the last concert of mine that he attended was the ‘Requiem,’ ” Zubin Mehta said.
He said that his father had been his first teacher, that he had grown up listening to his father’s symphony and quartet rehearsals and that, until he was 18 and went to Vienna to study, “everything I knew about music was from my father.”
The younger conductor echoed others’ appraisal of Mehli Meta as a strict disciplinarian, but kind and a universally adored teacher. “He had two loves -- his family and his music,” Zubin Mehta said. “This was his entire life.”
Violinist Lawrence Sonderling, a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 1977 and a former American Youth Symphony concertmaster, said that Mehli Mehta “did everything with great intensity and great purpose and great love for music. It was always the music that was the most important thing. In rehearsal with the orchestra, he would badger us, he would yell and scream; sometimes he would tell stories of things he had heard and seen in his musical youth. Always the intensity was there. And the passion.”
Mehta was born to Parsi parents in Bombay, India, on Sept. 25, 1908. He became interested in Western classical music while listening to his father’s records of violinists Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz and Efrem Zimbalist, and began violin studies when he was 5.
After studying at the University of Bombay and Trinity College of Music in London, he founded the Bombay Symphony in 1935, serving for 10 years as concertmaster before becoming its conductor. In 1940, he founded the Bombay String Quartet.
“I should have been born in Europe,” he told The Times in 1994. “In my 25 years playing in India, not one Hindu, not one Muslim came to my concerts. Only the English and the Americans came.”
Hoping to become a world-class violinist, Mehta moved to New York on a student visa in 1945 to study with the eminent pedagogue Ivan Galamian.
“It was the heyday of great conductors and virtuosos,” he said. “At my best, unhappily, I was no match for [Nathan] Milstein and Heifetz.”
Mehta returned to Bombay to take over the podium of the Bombay Symphony, but wanted to return to the United States. When he was unable to obtain a U.S. visa, he moved to England in 1955. He served there for five years as assistant concertmaster or concertmaster of the Halle Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli, whom he acknowledged as “one of the greatest influences of my conducting life.”
Mehta joined the Curtis String Quartet in Philadelphia in 1960 as second violinist and toured with the group until he moved to Los Angeles in 1964.
That was two years after his son Zubin began his duties at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The elder Mehta came to Los Angeles to become director of the orchestra department at UCLA and taught there until 1976.
Within two months of his arrival, he took over the American Youth Symphony, made up of university students from Southern California, and made it his own. The orchestra ultimately grew into a 110-member ensemble, with musicians ranging in age from 18 to 25. It continues to perform around the world.
As a conductor, Mehta was known for memorizing all his scores. “I come from what I call the golden age of music, when no one used a score,” he once said. “Today’s great conductors -- let’s even leave my darling son Zubin out of it -- but Abbado, Maazel, Ozawa, all conduct from memory.”
As a teacher, Mehta was known as an inspiring taskmaster. Prospective American Youth Symphony members were asked three questions: their age, who they studied with (he would not accept someone not studying with a reputable teacher) and whether they were willing to commit to 3 1/2 hours of rehearsals every Saturday. “What is our aim?” Mehta said in 1993. “To train them in great orchestra playing.”
More than 15 American Youth Symphony alumni went on to become members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and another 80-plus graduates play in orchestras across the country and in Europe.
“I joined when I was about 16, which was just shortly after he came to Los Angeles and took over the orchestra,” said Sonderling, the former American Youth Symphony concertmaster.
“Here I was, a high school student, and here’s this orchestra playing this great symphonic repertory. It was a whole different world for me. There was this man up there, he was cajoling and brow-beating and everything in between, and trying to impart his love and experience to young people. It was a shock, like nothing I had heard or seen before. But it was this sort of thing that made it possible for me to have a career.”
Mehta was slowed down by heart attacks in 1995 and 1996 and subsequent bypass surgery. At his American Youth Symphony farewell concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall in May 1998, he hobbled off the stage, suffering chest pains, after completing Ravel’s “La Valse.”
“The doctor said that, were it not for the defibrillator regulating my heartbeat, I would have been dead on the spot,” Mehta told The Times two days later.
The Russian-born violinist-conductor Alexander Treger, a longtime member and concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a music educator at UCLA and Crossroads School in Santa Monica, took over the American Youth Symphony in fall 1998.
“His musicianship and his love of music are the first things that come to my mind when I think of him,” Treger said. “And his total dedication. Music was totally his love. His knowledge of music, of certain phrasings, bowings, just name it, it’s amazing. I call it the Mehta genius. They see the page one time and it’s there. It’s amazing. The generations of musicians he trained, it’s absolutely marvelous.”
In addition to his wife and sons, Mehta is survived by four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Services will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the Hall of Liberty at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Hollywood Hills.
Times staff writer Myrna Oliver contributed to this report.