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Maestro Zubin Mehta’s 50 Years With The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

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On October 16, 2010, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra presented, in celebration of its upcoming 75th anniversary season, a spirited concert featuring excerpts from Bizet’s ‘Carmen’. A speech by Israel’s President Shimon Peres opened the event at Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium; a gala benefit at the Hilton Hotel followed.

But this was about far more than 75 years of Israel’s premier orchestra: It was Zubin Mehta’s 50 years of association with the orchestra which orchestra members and the adoring audience were particularly excited about.

So when the charismatic Mehta led the orchestra in ‘Hatikvah’, Israel’s national anthem, the atmosphere in the concert hall was definitely one of strong emotion and gratitude for the support and friendship the legendary maestro had extended to the people of Israel throughout his long career.
Ever since leaving his native India at age 18, Mehta has become one of the foremost figures within the international music world.

Starting off as a young conductor and music director of both the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he later successfully filled positions with orchestras in Tel Aviv, Florence and Munich; his 13-year term as music director of the New York Philharmonic was the longest consecutive term in that orchestra’s history.

Particularly for a society which is part of a region facing political unrest and violence on an almost daily basis, music serves as a reminder of a slice of humanity beyond conflict. And so it came as no surprise to me, when Shimon Peres expressed his gratitude and respect for Mehta’s meaningful musical leadership.

“His baton supplies us powerfully with magic and hope … he introduces harmony to our country, which is not often the case in abundance…” And, in turning to Mehta: “We thank you for that unmatched service.”
Mehta replied by reconfirming his strong connection with the orchestra: “Thanks for your support for my orchestra that I love with all my heart. We are one big family.”

But this honorary citizen of Tel Aviv does not only lend his voice of musical reason to the people of Israel. He has also done so in other places in crisis, from protesting the Vietnam War to the injustices suffered by the people of Sarajevo.

One of his more recent humanitarian efforts include a concert titled “A cry to the world”, held on July 5, 2010, in support of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalith, who, as a prisoner of Hamas, is not permitted visits by the International Red Cross or other humanitarian organizations.

 

Ever since he first started with the orchestra as a young, then still unknown conductor, substituting for Eugene Ormandy in July 1961, his “beloved” Israel Philharmonic Orchestra has always held a special place in the maestro’s heart. In 1969, Mehta accepted the position as the IPO’s music advisor, and in 1977 he became their music director. Then, in 1981, Mehta was appointed music director for life.

Most of the orchestra’s 120 musicians have been handpicked by Zubin Mehta. In his autobiography, ‘Zubin Mehta – The score of my life’, he explains: “There was excellent chemistry between the IPO and me from the beginning: we liked each other almost immediately.” The Six-DayWar in 1967 strengthened Mehta’s bond to the country and its people, and he went to Israel several times as a guest conductor of the IPO.

Numerous great performers from the world of classical music have followed his invitation to Israel to perform for free in times of crisis, such as Arthur Rubinstein and Isaac Stern. Mehta says: ”It is so wonderful when great souls give of themselves to the orchestra and benefit a country so in need of cultural infusion, whose entire sixty years of existence have been mired in terror and crisis.”

The founding of the orchestra dates back to 1936. Then, the Polish-Jewish violinist, Bronislaw Huberman, convinced 75 Jewish musicians to emigrate from Nazi Germany to Palestine to form an orchestra, thus saving them from the Holocaust. First called ‘The Palestinian Philharmonic Orchestra’, its inaugural concert on December 26, 1936 was headed by the legendary Arturo Toscanini. Leonard Bernstein led the renamed ‘Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’ in concerts during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, and was named its ‘music director laureate’.

Unlike most of the world’s big symphony orchestras, the IPO is run co-operatively, its administrative team consisting of just 15 IPO musicians and 35 staff members. Not only do the musicians handle the orchestra’s daily operations, they also share a great deal of responsibilities in terms of financing, programming, public relations and human resources.

The challenge of keeping classical music alive and appreciated by the young generation has led the IPO to create community programs targeting young people, including youth in remote areas. There are also musical outreach programs to Israel’s Arab population.

Through its international tours, the orchestra tries to act as a cultural ambassador for Israel, and support funding efforts for its operations.
Currently, not only are the rehearsals for this season’s nine programs under way, but preparations for the orchestra’s forthcoming international tours are in full swing, as well.

With backstage hallways buzzing with excitement and a healthy dose of chaotic, but creative energy, I still managed to greet the maestro and exchange a few words in my native German, the language he had acquired along with his musical education at the Vienna Musikakademie.

But before I could catch my breath, he was already being whisked away by someone determined enough to be in charge of any situation.

Yet, I was lucky that the orchestra’s ‘number one’, Avi Shoshani, was nice enough to take out a little time to give me his personal account of the maestro, who by now was resting in his office to get some peace between the earlier rehearsal and the forthcoming afternoon performance.

“I met the maestro for the first time in 1973. He was very supportive of me and has become an integral part of my life. I like to think that I, in turn, have become an important part of his life, as well. Because he is such a humble and down-to- earth man, whom I consider to be a great friend, it is easy to forget that he is one of the foremost maestros, and capable to inspire some of the most relevant musical experiences. One should never forget that he deserves to be put on a pedestal,” says Shoshani.

When I asked him which of the many musical experiences he has shared with the maestro on their many tours and concerts together stood out for him, Shoshani did not hesitate: “For me personally, the Mozart Requiem he performed during the Gulf War, or Wagner’s ‘Ring’, on tour in Valencia last June, will remain unforgettable breakthroughs on a musical and emotional level. Some of the pieces he has performed would be hard for me to imagine being played any other way.”

The depth of Shoshani’s commitment becomes clear when he continues: “I consider it a privilege to be associated with him and to exchange ideas on a continuous basis. Our communication is exquisite; it is often not necessary to finish the sentence – we know immediately what the other one means.”

Mehta has left his imprint on each of ‘his’ orchestras. His unerring ear, perhaps only rivaled by his communication skills, extends above and beyond the members of an orchestra. So does his personality that reaches all the way out to the audience. Many different musicians, whose lives he has touched throughout his astounding career, have commented on his extraordinary skills.

Deeply influenced by his music education at Vienna’s Musikakademie, Mehta managed to surpass the academy’s traditional approach and create his own. In turn, he helped to form many of the instrumentalists he has hired over the years, whether in Israel, New York or Los Angeles. And Mehta had a sure hand when it came to the choices of artists for his orchestras. One of the most prominent examples of a musician he brought along with him is the New York Philharmonic’s concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, who at age 11 had his solo debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His father, Harold Dicterow, had served this orchestra as the principal of the second violin section for 52 years.

Soloists that have performed with Mehta span entire generations of artists, from greats like Arthur Rubinstein and Isaac Stern, to musicians like Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman and Yitzhak Perlman, all the way to the younger and youngest of today’s classical music scene.

The maestro’s invitation to perform with one of the orchestras he was associated with has resulted in more than the occasional career breakthrough; Yefim Bronfman’s career break serves as one of many examples.

Mehta’s devotion to fostering young musical talent and his involvement with youth programs worldwide have become crucial for many young artists.

The same goes for his willingness to feature young talent on stage. Child prodigy Gil Shaham, for example, performed with Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic at age 11. Many of the young generation of classical music talent are full of praise for Mehta’s continuing efforts and generosity of shining the spotlight on them.

Cellist Inbal Segev remembers her debut under Mehta at the Barbican Hall in London, back in 1991. Mehta had almost effortlessly calmed down her nerves by saying: “After conducting Wagner, Beethoven’s triple concerto is like taking an Alka Seltzer,” making everyone laugh and relax. Says Segev: “After working with many conductors, I appreciate his genius even more. I almost took it for granted then, that playing a concerto could feel so ‘right’, but, of course, it does not happen that often, that a soloist and the conductor click as effortlessly, as we did back then.” And she adds: “Zubin’s loyalty to Israel is absolutely admirable. Now, as in the past, it takes bravery to support Israel and the Jewish people publicly. How many people have done so during the last 50 years? Zubin Mehta is the best friend to the Jewish people, that’s why he is so loved by all of us.”

Within any long and successful career there are special moments and events of particular significance. The maestro fondly remembers one of those moments, as captured in Christopher Nupen’s documentary “The Trout”. A benchmark in classical music documentaries, the film celebrates the spirit of a very special group of artists and friends in the late sixties: Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline du Pres, Pinchas Zukerman and Yitzchak Perlman. This was an exceptional moment in classical music’s history, and the film conveys the energy and creative interaction between musicians who would continue on in their career to reach the very top. But even at the time of the documentary, these artists were revered, not unlike pop or movie stars.
Upon phoning my public relations contact within the IPO about another opportunity to conduct an interview with Mehta, I got an invitation to that evening’s featured program, “The IPO in Jeans”, instead.

Geared to get the younger generation’s attention, Mehta and TV personality, Tsufit Grant, presented young talent during an entertaining evening where everybody dressed informally, and most of the orchestra’s musicians were in jeans.

It was then that I had the opportunity to experience Mehta’s lighter side. Just as compelling as the ‘serious’ Mehta, his charm and entertaining personality clearly proved that both modes could co-exist in one person.

 

 

But then his self-confident style has often allowed him to make unconventional and refreshing decisions. Some of his initiatives even seemed way ahead of their time, like his early ‘70’s ‘crossover’ concert, which was held at the Hollywood Bowl and featured the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra alongside some of rock music’s biggest names, like “Santana” and “The Who”.

In the backstage dressing room area I met with bassoonist Zeev Dorman, one of the senior members of the orchestra and the director of the Buchman – Mehta School. Founded in 2004, the school has set out to create a unique collaboration between academic and orchestra training for musicians. Principal IPO musicians are part of the school’s faculty.

Dorman, who also had been the conductor of the Israeli Youth Orchestra, shared some interesting historical details with me: “It is important to mention that the first viola player of the orchestra, the Hungarian Oden Partos, founded the first Music Academy in Tel Aviv, in the mid-thirties. Already in its founding days, the close connection between the orchestra and the Academy was established. Then, in 1962, the Music Academy was incorporated into the arts faculty of Tel Aviv University. Today, the Buchmann- Mehta School of Music is run as an independent unit, though, with members of the orchestra working with different instrumentalists, section by section, one on one.”

A creative solution was put in place, supporting the efforts of both the orchestra, as well as the university’s education of young musicians. Says Dorman: “The direct training with the orchestra enhances student’s interest and prepares them to continue a career with the orchestra. A problem that the orchestra faces is a loss of its younger generation of capable musicians, leaving the country to seek out positions with international orchestras. We are compatible with the highest international standards; we are also supporting talented students from around the world, who want to come to study with us. However, it is in our interest to foster a close relationship of the younger generation with the IPO, to ensure the legacy of the orchestra. Maestro Mehta is fully supporting those efforts. One performance each year is devoted to a chosen student of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music.”

Having grown up in Frankfurt, Germany, I personally know one of the great benefactors and patrons of Israel’s education and the arts, Frankfurt real estate entrepreneur, Joseph Buchmann. Buchmann became instrumental in the founding of the Buchmann- Mehta School.
In a phone interview, Jossel (Yiddish for ‘Joseph’) told me about his involvement in founding the school, and about his role as the university’s Chairman of the Board of Governors: “The University approached me with the dilemma that funds were needed to support the Music Academy. I responded that I was not an expert in the field of music, but that my friend of 25 years, Zubin Mehta, certainly was. Funds were also needed for the orchestra’s operations, especially for the education of the young musicians, who potentially would stay on with the orchestra, in Israel.”

Already a staunch supporter of the IPO, Buchmann came aboard. Zubin Mehta, who through his work with international orchestras is all too familiar with the fundraising needs of orchestras’ operations, joined as the school’s honorary president.

Back in New York, I had recently met with Zeev Dorman’s son, the young composer, Avner Dorman, who is the first graduate of the school’s composition program. See my article: Avner Dorman’s Compositions: Percussive Fairytales.

Avner Dorman told me about his experiences of working with Mehta, who this season premiered Dorman’s “Azerbaijani Dance”.

According to the young Dorman, “Mehta is one of the most accommodating and open-minded conductors. He wants to really include the composer, always asking, ‘is this how you envisioned it?’ and making sure you are happy. It amazes me that someone of his stature and genius continues to want to keep on learning and to be curious.”

I was rather overwhelmed by all the impressions that I had collected throughout my adventures following Zubin Mehta’s endeavors, and those surrounding the celebrations of his 50 years of intense musical and personal involvement.
And then my final good-bye happened totally by accident, when I practically bumped into the maestro in the elevator as we both departed the Hilton Hotel.

After those strenuous last days, packed with performances and public presentations, Mehta confided in me: “I can’t believe it, I am already leaving in half an hour for Akko, our next concert.”

I conclude that if anything might be missing in his exciting life, it may be a few moments of privacy and quiet downtime. And I finally fully understand his words at the gala benefit that night: “When we finish this season, we will have climbed a musical Mount Everest together.”

Perhaps I will have another chance to meet the Maestro.  His ongoing 50th celebration season will bring him and the IPO to a gala performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall, on February 22, 2011.

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About Ilona Oltuski

  • Ruth Drory

    Ilona, You have succeeded again, to bring the personality of Maestro Metha so clear to the reader, that I feel,
    as if I have known him personaly myself.

  • getclassical

    thanks very much for the supportive comment. I need to correct a detail about Avner Dorman – he is not the first graduate of the Buchmann-Mehta’s School composition department(page 6), he did in fact still finish his studies at the Academy, before the Mehta School was put in place(in 2004) I.Oltuski

  • Jim Stimeck

    Hello Ilona. I very much enjoyed your review of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and in particular, your personal views of the legendary maestro himself. I had only recently begun an appreciation of his work, and coincidentally happened upon your blog. Your blogs provide great insight into your experiences… a fantastic read… I will bookmark this.

  • Ruvy

    I enjoyed this article greatly, Ilona. Thank you! You did a beautiful job explaining both the workings of the IPO and the influence of Zubin Mehta on it. If only more Indians were as affectionate towards this country as he is!

    When I realized that German is your native language, I understood why you rendered “Yossel” as “Jossel” and “Hatikva” as “Hatikwa”. But Shimon Peres is written in Hebrew, and pronounced in Hebrew (as I’m sure you know), with an “s” and not a “z”.

    A wonderful review!

    Have you written any articles on the art movement at Betzalel?

  • ilona oltuski

    Hi – thanks so much for your positive reviews and I am sorry for the misspellings – you are right of course, I am going to have the editors correct that. Regarding the Bezalel – yes I have published my doctorial thesis in German as part of a University publication : Fundamente der Kunstgeschichte, Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universitaet Frankfurt
    Thanks for your interest
    Ilona Oltuski