Zubin Mehta (born 29 April 1936) is an Indian conductor of Western and Eastern classical music. He is currently music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO).
Mehta's father was the founder of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra, and from him, Mehta received his early musical education. When he was 18, he enrolled in the Vienna state music academy from which he graduated after three years with a diploma as a conductor. He began winning international competitions and conducted the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic at age 21. Beginning in the 1960s, Mehta gained experience by substituting for celebrated maestros throughout the world.
Mehta was Music Director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra from 1961 to 1967; and Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra from 1962 to 1978, being the youngest music director ever for any major North American orchestra. In 1969, he was appointed Music Adviser to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and in 1981, Mehta became its permanent Music Director for Life. From 1978 to 1991, he was Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. Since 1985, he has also been chief conductor of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence, Italy.
He is an honorary citizen of both Florence and Tel Aviv and was made an honorary member of the Vienna State Opera in 1997 and of the Bavarian State Opera in 2006. The title of "Honorary Conductor" was bestowed on him by numerous orchestras throughout the world. More recently, Mehta made several tours with the Bavarian State Opera and kept up a busy schedule of guest conducting appearances until present times. In December 2006, he received the "Kennedy Center Honor" and in October 2008 was honored by the Japanese Imperial Family with the "Praemium Imperiale". In 2016, Zubin Mehta was appointed Honorary Conductor of the Teatro San Carlo, Naples.
Early years and education
Mehta was born into a Gujarati Parsi family in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, during the British Raj, the older son of Mehli (1908–2002) and Tehmina (Daruvala) Mehta. His native language is Gujarati. His family was Parsi, descendants of Zoroastrian Persians who fled their country under religious persecution in the eighth century and settled in Gujarat. His father was a self-taught violinist and who founded and conducted the Bombay Symphony Orchestra and later the American Youth Symphony, which he conducted for 33 years after moving to Los Angeles. His father had previously lived in New York in order to study under violinist Ivan Galamian, a noted teacher who also taught Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman. His father returned to Bombay as a finished violinist of the Russian school. Mehta notes that on many occasions when he conducts throughout the U.S., someone approaches him to say, "You don’t know how much I loved your father!".
Mehta has often described his childhood as being surrounded by music at home all the time, and having probably learnt to speak Gujarati and sing around the same time. He recounts his father having had a strong influence on him, and listening to his quartet daily after his father returned from USA after the Second World War. Mehta at age seven was first taught to play violin and piano by his father. When he reached his early teens, his father allowed him to lead sectional rehearsals of the Bombay Symphony, and at sixteen, he was conducting the full orchestra during rehearsals.
Mehta graduated secondary school from St. Mary's School, Mumbai and went on to study medicine at St. Xavier's College, Mumbai, at the urging of his mother, who wanted him to take up a more "respectable" profession than music. At age eighteen, he dropped out after two years to move to Vienna, one of Europe's music centers, in order to study music under Hans Swarowsky at the state music academy. He lived on $75 per month, and was a contemporary of conductor Claudio Abbado and future conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim.
He remained at the academy for three years, during which time he also studied the double bass, which he played in the Vienna Chamber Orchestra. Swarowsky recognized Mehta's abilities early on, describing him as a "demoniac conductor" who "had it all". While still a student, after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, he organized a student orchestra in seven days and conducted it in a concert at a refugee camp outside Vienna.
He graduated in 1957 when he was twenty-one with a diploma in conducting. In 1958 he entered the Liverpool International Conductor's Competition with a hundred contestants and took first prize. The prize included a year's contract as associate conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, which he conducted in fourteen concerts, all of which received rave reviews.
He then was a 2nd-place prize-winner at the summer academy at the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts. At that competition he attracted the notice of Charles Munch, then the conductor of the Boston Symphony, who would later help his career. In 1958, he boldly programmed an all-Schoenberg concert, which did so well that he accepted further bookings. That same year he also married a Canadian voice student, Carmen Lasky, whom he met in Vienna.
During the years of 1960 and 1961, Mehta was asked to substitute for celebrated maestros throughout the world, receiving high critical acclaim for most of those concerts. In 1960, he conducted a series for the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and later that summer made his New York conducting debut leading the New York Philharmonic.
Music critic Winthrop Sargeant,
on Mehta's 1967 New York debut at Carnegie Hall
In 1960, with the help of Charles Munch, Mehta became the chief conductor and Music Director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, a post he held until 1967. By 1961, he had already conducted the Vienna, Berlin and Israel Philharmonic Orchestras. In 1962, he took the Montreal Symphony on a concert tour to Russia, Paris and Vienna. Mehta was most apprehensive about his concert in Vienna, which he said was considered the "capital of Western music". However, his single concert there received a twenty-minute ovation, fourteen curtain calls, and two encores.
In 1961, he was named assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (LAP), although the orchestra's music director designate, Georg Solti, was not consulted on the appointment, and subsequently resigned in protest. The orchestra had been without a permanent conductor for four years when Mehta started directing it.
Mehta was named Music Director of the orchestra and held the post from 1962 to 1978. When he began his first season with the orchestra in 1962, he was twenty-six, the youngest person ever to hold that title. And as he had also conducted the Montreal Symphony during those early years, he became the first person ever to direct two North American symphony orchestras at the same time.
As the LAP's first conductor in four years, Mehta worked to polish its overall sound to something closer to the Vienna Philharmonic. He succeeded in altering its sound to being warmer and richer by fostering competition among the musicians, shifting assignments, giving promotions and changing seating arrangements as he saw fit. He also inspired the musicians; 21-year-old cellist Jacqueline du Pré said "He provides a magic carpet for you to float on". Cellist Kurt Reher recalls Mehta's first rehearsal with the orchestra: "within two beats we were entranced. It seemed this young man had the ability, the musical knowledge of a man of 50 or 55."
In 1965 after his debut with the Metropolitan Opera's performance of Aida, music critic Alan Rich wrote, "Mehta brought to the conducting of the score a kind of bedazzlement that has no peer in recent times... It was a lunging, teeming, breathless performance that still had plenty of breath." He subsequently conducted the Met in its performances of Carmen, Tosca, and Turandot.
For Montreal's Expo 67, he conducted both the Montreal and the Los Angeles orchestras together for a performance of Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique. Also that year he conducted the world premier of Marvin David Levy's Mourning Becomes Electra.
But by May 1967, his schedule was becoming overcrowded and he resigned his Montreal post. That fall he took the 107-member Los Angeles Philharmonic on an eight-week tour, including engagements in Vienna, Paris, Athens, and his birthplace, Bombay. By 1968, his popularity kept him busier than the year before, which included twenty-two weeks of concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, three operas at the Met, television appearances in the U.S. and Italy, five recording sessions, and guest appearances at five festivals and with five orchestras. Time magazine put him on its cover in January 1968. In 1969 his schedule remained equally active.
In 1978, Mehta became the Music Director and Principal Conductor of the New York Philharmonic and remained there until his resignation in 1991, becoming the longest holder of the post.
He became music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) in 1977. He began the first of many guest appearances with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) in 1961. In 1966, he toured with the orchestra, and during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, he rushed back to Israel to conduct several special concerts to "demonstrate solidarity" with its people. He was appointed IPO's Music Advisor in 1969, Music Director in 1977, and was made its Music Director for Life in 1981.
During his five-decade connection with the IPO, he has conducted it in thousands of concerts in Israel and abroad. He conducted concerts with the IPO in South Lebanon in 1982, after which the Arabs rushed onstage to hug the musicians. He conducted it during the Gulf War in 1991, where the audience brought their gas masks; and in 2007, it played for an entirely Arab audience in Nazareth. He claims to have a "deep kinship" with Israel's musicians and the "spirit and tradition of the Jewish people." He adds that conducting the IPO is "something I do for my heart". Recalling those earlier years, he says, "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."
In 1978, Mehta left the Los Angeles Philharmonic to become music director for the New York Philharmonic (NYP). Among the reasons he wanted to direct the NYP was that it allowed him to experiment with new ideas, such as taking the orchestra to Harlem. There, they played at the Abyssinian Baptist Church each year. Accompanying the orchestra with Mehta for various concerts were Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, and Kathleen Battle. He stayed with NYP until 1991.
From 1985 to 2017, Mehta was chief conductor of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence. From 1998 until 2006, Mehta was Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. The Munich Philharmonic named him its Honorary Conductor. Since 2005, Mehta has been the main conductor (together with Lorin Maazel) of the Palau de les Arts, the new opera house of the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències in Valencia, Spain.
While he was the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Mehta commissioned from Ravi Shankar his Concerto No. 2 for sitar and orchestra. Following New York performances, the concerto was later recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1998 he went to Munich where he began directing the Bavarian State Opera, because, he said, it provided "another panorama for me, to be involved in the running of an opera house".
Earlier, in 1990, he conducted the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Orchestra del Teatro dell'Opera di Roma in the first ever Three Tenors concert in Rome, joining the tenors again in 1994 at the Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles. In between those appearances, he conducted the historic 1992 production of Tosca in which each act took place in the actual setting and at the actual time specified in the score. This production starred Catherine Malfitano in the title role, Plácido Domingo as Cavaradossi and Ruggero Raimondi as Baron Scarpia. Act I was telecast live from Rome's Basilica of Sant'Andrea della Valle on Saturday, 11 July, at noon (Central European Daylight Saving Time); act II was telecast later that evening from the Palazzo Farnese at 9:40 p.m.; act III was telecast live on Sunday, 12 July, at 7:00 am from the Castel Sant'Angelo, also known as Hadrian's Tomb.
In June 1994, Mehta performed the Mozart Requiem, along with the members of the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at the ruins of Sarajevo's National Library, in a fundraising concert for the victims of armed conflict and remembrance of the thousands of people killed in the Yugoslav Wars. On 29 August 1999, he conducted Mahler Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection), at the vicinity of Buchenwald concentration camp in the German city of Weimar, with both the Bavarian State Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, sitting alongside each other.
He toured his native country India and home city Mumbai (Bombay) in 1984, with the New York Philharmonic, and again in November–December 1994, with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, along with soloists Itzhak Perlman and Gil Shaham. In 1997 and 1998, Mehta worked in collaboration with Chinese film director Zhang Yimou on a production of the opera Turandot by Giacomo Puccini which they took to Florence, Italy, and then to Beijing, China, where it was staged in its actual surroundings in the Forbidden City, with over 300 extras and 300 soldiers, for nine historic performances. The making of this production was chronicled in a documentary called The Turandot Project which Mehta narrated.
On 26 December 2005, the first anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami, Mehta and the Bavarian State Orchestra performed for the first time in Chennai (formerly called Madras) at the Madras Music Academy. This tsunami memorial concert was organized by the Madras German consulate along with the Max-Mueller Bhavan/Goethe-Institut. 2006 was his last year with the Bavarian State Orchestra.
In 2011, Mehta's performance with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at The Proms in London was picketed and interrupted by pro-Palestinian protesters, which caused the BBC to halt the live radio relay of the concert, the first such incident in the history of The Proms. In September 2013, Mehta appeared with the Bavarian State Orchestra at a Special concert named Ehsaas e Kashmir organized by the German Embassy in India, at historic Mughal Gardens, Srinagar. Both Mehta and Orchestra reportedly renounced their usual fees for this concert.
In December 2016, the Israel Philharmonic announced that Mehta is to conclude his tenure as music director as of October 2019.
Mehta received praise early in his career for dynamic interpretations of the large-scale symphonic music of Anton Bruckner, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and Franz Schmidt. His conducting is renowned as being flamboyant, vigorous and forceful.
In 2010, Mehta conducted the orchestra for the King Carlos and Queen of Spain to play variations of Happy Birthday in the styles of various performers including Wagner, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and in the Viennese, New Orleans and Hungarian composition styles.
Mehta's first marriage was to Canadian soprano Carmen Lasky in 1958. They have a son, Mervon, and a daughter, Zarina. In 1964, they divorced. Two years after the divorce, Carmen married Mehta's brother, Zarin Mehta, formerly the Executive Director of the New York Philharmonic. In July 1969, Mehta married Nancy Kovack, an American former film and television actress. Mehta, a permanent resident of the United States, retains his Indian citizenship.
One of his close friends was Ravi Shankar, whom he first met in the 1960s when Mehta directed him with the Montreal Symphony. Their friendship continued after they were both living in Los Angeles and later in New York. "This was a wonderful period in my life and Zubin and I really had a great time."
Honours and awards
- In 1965, he received an honorary doctorate from Sir George Williams University, which later became Concordia University.
- Mehta's name is mentioned in the song Billy the Mountain on the 1972 album Just Another Band from L.A. by Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. Cellist Kurt Reher, who played when Mehta conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was also a guest musician with The Mothers of Invention.
- At the Israel Prize ceremony in 1991, Mehta was awarded a special prize in recognition of his unique devotion to Israel and to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1995, he became a Laureate of the Wolf Prize in Arts. In 1999, Mehta was presented the "Lifetime Achievement Peace and Tolerance Award" of the United Nations.
- The Government of India honoured Mehta in 1966 with the Padma Bhushan and in 2001 with India's second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan.
- In September 2006 the Kennedy Center announced Mehta as one of the recipients of that year's Kennedy Center Honors, presented on 2 December 2006.
- In February 2007, Mehta was the recipient of the Second Annual Bridgebuilder Award at Loyola Marymount University.
- Mehta is an honorary citizen of Florence and Tel Aviv. He was made an honorary member of the Vienna State Opera in 1997. In 2001 he has bestowed the title of "Honorary Conductor" of the Vienna Philharmonic and in 2004 the Munich Philharmonic awarded him the same title, as did the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in 2006. At the end of his tenure with the Bavarian State Opera he was named Honorary Conductor of the Bavarian State Orchestra and Honorary Member of the Bavarian State Opera, and the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Wien, appointed him an honorary member in November 2007.
- In October 2008, Mehta received the Praemium Imperiale (World Culture Prize in Memory of His Imperial Highness Prince Takamatsu), Japan.
- In March 2011, Mehta received the 2,434th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In October 2011 he received the Echo Klassik in Berlin, for his life's work.
- In September 2013, President of India Pranab Mukherjee awarded him the Tagore Award 2013 for his outstanding contribution towards cultural harmony.
Mehta's life has been documented in Terry Sanders' film Portrait of Zubin Mehta. A documentary film about Mehta, Zubin and I, was produced by the grandson of an Israeli harpist who played with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra before Mehta assumed the helm. The filmmaker joins the orchestra on a tour of Mumbai and meets with him for two interviews, in India and Tel Aviv.
In Christopher Nupen's 1969 documentary The Trout about a performance of Schubert's Trout Quintet in London by Jacqueline du Pré, Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman and Mehta, he plays the double bass.
Zubin Mehta was also mentioned in the novel Master of the Game by Sidney Sheldon.
Zubin Mehta and his orchestra starrs in the 2017 Spanish film documentary Dancing Beethoven, which tells the preparation of the Ninth Symphony. The film was nominated in the 32nd Goya Awards for Best Documentary Film and in the XXIII Premio Cinematográfico José María Forqué.
In 2009, Mehta established Mifneh (Hebrew for "change"), a music education program for Israeli Arabs, in cooperation with Bank Leumi and the Arab-Israel Bank. Three schools, in Shfaram, the Jezreel Valley and Nazareth, are taking part in the pilot project.
He and his brother Zarin constitute the Advisor Council of the Mehli Mehta Foundation.