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

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