Zubin Mehta: Master of the high tempo

As he brings the Israel Philharmonic to the Proms, the Indian conductor Zubin Mehta tells Nicola Christie how music has become a powerful agent for change in his adopted land

A full day of rehearsal, an audition – a cellist, not Maestro himself – and then me.

Zubin Mehta could be forgiven for taking the usual Hollywood route (he was recently awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, uncommon for a conductor) of bowing out. However he sits down graciously, confesses his disappointment at India's performance against England in the cricket recently, and takes a big sip of water.

The Israel Philharmonic, of which Zubin Mehta is the Music Director for Life, is 75 years old this year, and a string of grandiose performances has to be prepared for. Prepared for by a conductor who is himself 75 years old and, this year, celebrates 50 years with this unique group of musicians. One of the celebratory concerts will take place on Thursday at the BBC Proms. "We have a lot of work to do. Today we've got through Albéniz's Iberia and Rimsky Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol (also Ravel's Boléro and the beginning of Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto) but we have far to go. The repertoire is demanding. It is a question of how to allocate time and when to move on. We have only done some of the dressing."

It was at the age of 25 that the Bombay-born musician, originally pipped for a career as a doctor, found himself in the city of Tel Aviv. Invited to conduct the Israel Philharmonic – the same year that he was invited to make his debuts with the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, with whom he has also retained long-lasting relationships – he stayed with the Barenboim family for this first trip and recalls vividly a nighttime stroll with Daniel along the city's bustling Dizengoff Street. "I felt immediately at home – having been in a very strict organised atmosphere of Vienna where I had been at the Conservatoire for seven years, and then this! People discussing and talking at the same time – it was just like India! I felt very at home, everybody very opinionated, everybody giving you advice. I missed it – not having been in Bombay for so many years – I hadn't gone back during my studies."

Mehta has now spent a quarter of his life in Israel. While having a home in Los Angeles, where he was music director from 1962 to 1978, and spending much of his time, currently, in Germany with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, he still spends at least three months of the year rehearsing with the 105 players of the IPO, all of whom he has hand-picked, in addition to taking the orchestra on regular worldwide tours. "We have no contract, and I've told the players they can get rid of me whenever they want, but they seem to still want me – and I still want them." A unique band of players who Mehta says make up one of the world's 10 greatest orchestras. They were formed in 1936 as the Palestinian Orchestra, by the first Austrian-German Jewish pioneers.

"A new generation of players came in the 1980s, from the Soviet Union, Russian Jews fleeing anti-Semitism, seeking a new life in the Promised Land. With 30 per cent of the core members due to retire over the next five years, a young generation of Israelis, born and bred in the country, is coming through. During rehearsal one hears Russian (half of the string section are Russian immigrants), English, Ivrit (modern Hebrew) and occasionally Arabic. "In fived to eight years I think we will finally see some Israeli Arab players coming in, at least regularly making auditions," reflects Mehta.

The orchestra has played with several Arab soloists but there is still not a strong body of Arabic musicians versed in Western classical music that the IPO can call on, though that is changing. "We have an Arab training programme in the north, in the town of Nazareth – they are not yet ready to join the orchestra but that is my dream. There is talent. It will take a few years. When they are mature enough in their technical command of the instrument we bring them to our school at the Tel Aviv University where we train young musicians to play in the orchestra. That's not to say that these players, when they emerge, will get any special treatment at audition, we have never hired any one out of pity, it is only about music."

Music. A form of art which, according to Mehta and fellow IPO founders like Barenboim and the late Leonard Bernstein, can change lives. It is why these luminaries have literally risked their lives to keep the band playing. "The people of this country need music," explains Mehta. During the 1991 Gulf War he conducted a daily morning concert for Israelis who were under curfew at night. "I don't know how good those concerts were, musically – they were not well-rehearsed – but they were necessary."

During the 1967 Six Day War, Mehta was flown in on an El Al plane loaded with cargo – after the scheduled conductor fled out of fear. Six nations were surrounding the tiny country of Israel at the time, but the only crisis that Mehta was concerned about was that the concert might be aborted. "Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pre were flying in to perform at the same concert – they had no idea what was going on. When the little war was over we were very happy, all together, to do the victory concert in Jerusalem.

One of the battalions had their home in the concert hall at the time. Everyone at the concert had been camped out in cellars for six days. The one person who came on stage before we did, and who got a standing ovation, was the Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek; because he literally did not sleep for six days and nights, he went from one cellar to the other visiting his constituents. He suddenly, overnight, became mayor of two cities.

"Daniel was playing Beethoven's Emperor Piano Concerto and Jackie was playing the Elgar Cello Concerto. Two days after that Daniel and Jackie got married at the Western Wall." Mehta was a witness. "Daniel pretended I was Jewish because, at an orthodox ceremony, the witnesses need to be Jewish! Isaac Stern was also there, Pinchas Zukerman, there was a whole crowd of us."

Music can change lives and it can also change perceptions. From being the hero of the Middle East, the single democratically elected nation, Israel is now more commonly perceived as the aggressor, at least in the West. Mehta recognises what a tool he has for change in his orchestra.

"We visit hundreds of different countries all over the world, we have become ambassadors of Israel. But we are the only public face of so may extraordinary cultural and intellectual jewels that this country has produced. Let's try to try to count the number of Nobel prize-winners that have emerged from scientific centres of excellence like the Weizmann Institute and Haifa's technical university, the Technion. There has to be at least 25. But the man on the street doesn't see what these colleges and scientists produce, medicines and products that change the world – they do see our orchestra."

They do indeed. Not just because of the drama and folklore attached to the orchestra, but because of the supreme musicianship. A musicianship that will, this year, not only be on display at the Royal Albert Hall but also at the celebrated Lucerne Festival and various other big European concert halls in Madrid, Paris, Cologne and Turin. Guest conductors and artists joining the orchestra at the end of the year include Kurt and son Ken Masur, Pinchas Zukerman, Evgeny Kissin and Valery Gergiev.

As for Mehta, he is looking ahead at where the orchestra needs to go next. "Cairo is the big one. That is important to me, after so many years of peace with Egypt, it is very important that we play there." I ask, after all this time here, whether he now considers himself an Israeli. "In spirit, yes. But, in my heart, I am Indian." And we are back to the cricket...

The Israel Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta perform at the BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0845 401 5045) on 1 September

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas