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Mr. Mehta’s world tour

Special to The Times

WHEN Zubin Mehta first conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 1961, he says, he and the orchestra discovered they were both 25 years old. “At a reception after the concert, the orchestra’s president said in his speech, ‘I hope we will turn 50 together,’ ” recalls Mehta. “Fifty turned to 60, and now the orchestra and I are 70 together.”

Named the Israel Philharmonic’s music advisor in 1969, the Bombay-born, Yiddish-speaking conductor became music director for life in 1981. “I have good sitzfleish,” says Mehta. “I remain in places: 16 years with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, 13 with the New York Philharmonic. And I have now been with Israel for 37 years.”

As part of their joint birthday tour this year, the 70-year-old maestro brings his 70-year-old orchestra to Los Angeles for Disney Hall concerts Feb. 5 and 6 (the second conducted by Lorin Maazel). “I’m not here too often, but I come home as much as I can,” Mehta said a few months ago, clearly relaxed on the patio of his longtime Brentwood home. “I arrived yesterday from Tokyo, I’m going tomorrow to Florence, and I thought Los Angeles is on the way. Two days in my home is my rejuvenation process.”

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Two days is a long break for the peripatetic conductor, just done with an eight-year term running Munich’s Bavarian State Opera while simultaneously leading both Florence’s Maggio Musicale and the Israel Philharmonic. Pausing in early December to receive a Kennedy Center Honor in Washington, D.C., Mehta spent most of that month overseeing the Israel Philharmonic’s anniversary celebrations in Israel before taking them on the road this month.

Chatting in his backyard, yawning from jet leg, Mehta is charismatic even in casual dress and off the podium. He is a gracious host, unhurried and eager to tell stories of his travels and travails. The last months have been grueling, he concedes. “I climbed Mt. Everest in July at the opera house, conducting nine different operas, including a new production of Schoenberg’s ‘Moses und Aron.’ ” The last two operas of what he calls “this magnificent month” were particularly challenging as, he explains, they followed knee surgery and required his conducting while seated.

So he took August off for the first time in years.

“I moved here in 1974, but the proof that I don’t live here year-round is to look at how overgrown things are,” Mehta observes. “Everything needs trimming.”

A musical household

GROWING up in Bombay, Mehta spent a childhood listening to music more at home than in the concert hall. His violinist father, Mehli Mehta, was founder and concertmaster of the Bombay Symphony, and the teen-age Mehta sometimes would conduct rehearsals for his father.

The conductor says he didn’t hear a concert by a major orchestra until he went to Vienna at age 18 to attend the Academy of Music.

In Vienna, Mehta studied conducting with Hans Swarowsky and attended concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic. Just a few years later, he himself conducted the orchestra, one of several debuts in 1961 that included the Berlin Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic.

He was named music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra that year, a post he held until 1967, and in 1962, he also became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Mehta refers to those early years as “formative” ones, replete with on-the-job training.

“I learned so much from the musicians at the Los Angeles Philharmonic,” Mehta says today. “They played for years with Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter and Igor Stravinsky, and they would tell me what they experienced under those three great men. I had the most disciplined groundwork from Vienna, but my door was always open to suggestions.

“The orchestra must have had great patience with me. I did the ‘Eroica’ here for the first time. The Mozart G-minor symphony. ‘Salome.’ The great Schubert C-major. I did all of them here for the first time. But the orchestra had played them under so many conductors and gave me such a legacy of their experience. Many later retired, and I brought in 86 musicians by the time I left. Some of them have already retired too, but that was an incredible injection into the orchestra.”

That orchestra is performing today not at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which Mehta launched on Dec. 6, 1964, but at the much newer Walt Disney Concert Hall. “I was always happy at the Dorothy Chandler, and I had no problems there,” he says. “But the Chandler is a theater, and Disney is a real concert hall with acoustical conditions set out for a sitting orchestra and opera. The priority was orchestral sound, and that’s what they’ve achieved, I think, magnificently. We don’t hear the term ‘cultural desert’ anymore here.”

Mehta left the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1978, taking over the New York Philharmonic that year as music director. “What pleased me was that I could do new things there,” he says. “Like taking the orchestra to Harlem. We knew the pastor well at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and he welcomed the orchestra once a year for many years. For the first concert, Leontyne Price phoned me and said, ‘I got married in that church. You’re not going to play there without me.’ Later on, Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman -- they all played with me in Harlem. The newspaper headline was ‘The Philharmonic Finally Took the A Train.’ ”

Asked how he would distinguish his many orchestral employers, one from the next, Mehta says there’s really no way to do that anymore. “Now all play with conductors with almost the same repertoire, and we are developing a European sound within these great orchestras. Most of them are becoming so supple and flexible they can play Bruckner with a Viennese sound and Debussy with a French sound. That never used to be the case.”

After Mehta left the New York Philharmonic in 1991, he says, he was reluctant to take a similar job with another orchestra. It wasn’t until seven years later that he went to Munich and the Bavarian State Opera because, he says, “that was another panorama for me, to be involved in the running of an opera house. And now that that has ended, I am a free bird again.”

Well, not exactly a free bird. He’s always made time to conduct prominent orchestras -- and prominent tenors -- in Europe and the United States, and he still has large chunks of time slated to his orchestras in Italy and Israel.

“When Mr. Mehta came here, he was the youngest one among the musicians, and nowadays he is the oldest one,” observes Avi Shoshani, executive director of the Israel Philharmonic, who has worked with Mehta since 1973. “Since he first came, it has been a love story. The orchestra loves him, and he loves the orchestra.”

It really was “love at first sight,” agrees Mehta. “I fell in love not only with the orchestra but with the country itself. It reminded me a lot of my home, Bombay. Israelis, like Indians, are opinionated, and they have the habit of all speaking at the same time, which made me feel at home. People think this is a Jewish characteristic. It’s not. It’s Asiatic.”

Founded in 1936 by the noted Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, the Israel Philharmonic was first called the Palestine Orchestra. As Nazism rose, Huberman helped many distinguished European musicians immigrate to Palestine and, more recently, emigrating Russian musicians too found a home at the orchestra. Mehta estimates that today about 55% of the orchestra musicians are Russian, and aside from just two of the musicians, says Mehta, “I’ve engaged every single one of them. A hand-picked orchestra takes on special meaning.”

The orchestra, which Mehta has called “the flagship of the nation, culturally speaking,” performed in 1947 when Palestine was partitioned, in 1948 when Israel was proclaimed a state, and through countless wars and celebrations ever since. Mehta was there conducting during the Gulf War in 1991, for instance; his audiences brought their gas masks into the concert hall. Just two months ago, he says, the orchestra played for an entirely Arab audience in a basketball arena in Nazareth.

“In 1982, we went a few kilometers into south Lebanon and played a concert exclusively for the Lebanese,” recalls Mehta. “Our stage was in a tobacco field, and at the end of the concert, the Arabs rushed onstage and hugged our musicians.

“How I would love to see that sight again today, of Arabs and Jews hugging each other. I’m a positive thinker. I know this day will come.”

*

Israel Philharmonic

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Feb. 5 (Zubin Mehta, conductor) and Feb. 6 (Lorin Maazel, conductor)

Price: $39 to $135 (Feb. 5 sold out)

Contact: (323) 850-2000.

www.laphil.com.


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