Luke Slattery in Valencia with Zubin Mehta
Zubin Mehta, who will lead the Australian World Orchestra later this year, talks to Luke Slattery
MAESTRO Mehta wants to talk about cricket. Though we’ve only just met at the opera house in Valencia, the presence of an Australian so far from home prompts the conductor’s reflections on England’s prospects — ‘‘ They are coming up,’’ he warns — against Australia. Cricket is one of Mumbai-born Zubin Mehta’s great diversions. His greatest passion, however — the source of his fame and the reason he’s heading to Australia later this year — is the classical repertoire. In October, Mehta will lead the Australian World Orchestra, which unites the global diaspora of Australian classical musicians with top-shelf home-based performers.
The sheer heft of the homecoming party, with more than 100 musicians performing Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Gustav Mahler’s magisterial First Symphony, has earned it among insiders the ironic sobriquet: World Domination Orchestra. Australia is but a blip on the classical music landscape and far removed from the centres of music-making, and yet the effort of concentrating the nation’s musical firepower in one ensemble for a special event has gladdened hearts and yielded wonderful results.
Even Mehta’s part in this cultural spectacular is not without a cricketing gloss. ‘‘ I originally agreed to the concerts in December as it would have coincided with the Ashes series,’’ he confesses. ‘‘ But unfortunately I couldn’t do it then because of the proposed Wagner Ring cycle here in Valencia that month. In the end, the economic situation in Spain meant we couldn’t do the whole Ring, so I could have come in December after all. But imagine,’’ he adds with a shrug of resignation and a theatrical show of palms, ‘‘ calling musicians from all over the world to change plans!’’
The AWO was born in 2011 from a dream of peripatetic Australian conductor Alex Briger, and now, after a gap year, it returns to Sydney and Melbourne. The idea for a big musical family reunion had been kicking around for a decade or more, explains Briger, the orchestra’s artistic director. Born to a family of musicloving Russian emigre aristocrats — an uncle knew all the words to Wagner’s operas in German but couldn’t so much as order a bratwurst in the tongue — Briger says the concept was raised among Australian musicians based abroad whenever they connected in the orchestra pit, the hotel lobby or bar. ‘‘ I used to go and conduct all these fantastic orchestras abroad and there were all these Australians. They were just everywhere and we used to talk about how good an orchestra would sound if we all got together and combined it with the Australian players. And when I returned to Australia, I thought, ‘ Let’s make it happen’.’’
He regards Mehta’s participation as a great gift for Australian musicians and music lovers, and a boon for the AWO’s prospects on the international musical calendar. It’s extremely rare for a conductor of this calibre to lead an Australian orchestra at home. ‘‘ I would have to place Zubin in the top one or two,’’ Briger says.
So I’ve come to Valencia, Spain’s third largest city and the centre of a vibrant musical life focused on its opera house, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, to better understand one of the masters of orchestral music-making ahead of his Australian visit. Mehta is fine-tuning a new production of Verdi’s Otello in the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, to give the opera house its proper name. The building looms like an abandoned space helmet — its soaring convex lines and clean sculptural presence a kind of homage, surely, to the Sydney Opera House — from a reclaimed riverbed snaking through the city.
Mehta has been president of Valencia’s Festival of the Mediterranean since 2006 and his camerino — or dressing room — has a livedin air. A glossy black grand piano stands in one corner and beside it hangs a portrait of Mehta painted by a fan. Awaiting his attention on a table set with cutlery is a plate of Spanish tortilla, and on the white wall behind is a painting of bulls rendered with Minoan grace and simplicity by Calatrava himself.
Maestro Mehta is seated, when I enter, at a low coffee table bearing a farrago of discs, newspapers, books and a half-hidden program of his upcoming engagements. He gestures like a pasha for me to sit. Mehta’s reputation as a charismatic figure of tremendous warmth precedes him, but there is little of it on display in the early stages of our conversation. He has just finished an interview with an Israeli journalist, has an appointment pending with Spanish television and a general rehearsal of Otello to lead tonight. He is, seemingly, a master of everything, except his time. It’s taken me more than 30 hours to get here and he insists, when I check the tape to see if it’s working: ‘‘ We’ll have to get a move on.’’
Mehta’s talent was apparent by his late teens, by which time he had abandoned medical studies for music. In 1954, at the age of 18, he moved to Vienna to study under Hungarianborn conductor Hans Swarowsky, alongside Claudio Abbado. Four years later, in the same year he debuted with the Vienna Philharmonic, he won the Liverpool International Conducting Competition. He was just 22.
A year later, after a rather arid year as assistant conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic, he was appointed principal conductor and music director at Montreal. A year later he became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he served for the next 14 years, propelling it to the ranks of the world’s great orchestras. In 1978, he began a 13-year term as music director at the New York Philharmonic, the longest of any director before or since. And in 1967 he began a close association with the Israel Philharmonic — he is its lifetime director, no less. He returns to Vienna and Berlin for regular conducting engagements, though much of his steady work in the past few decades has been with the Bavarian State Opera, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino festival in Florence, and in Valencia each summer. Despite the European focus of his music-making, he lives mostly in Los Angeles with his second wife, Nancy Kovack.
Mehta’s 50-year career has been defined by these lengthy relationships, a little like intense musical love affairs. He also enjoys letting down the drawbridge of symphonic music to take it to the people. He was the first to conduct the Three Tenors, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras, and he maintains a deep and abiding personal commitment to musical education.
Though his career has been littered with flyin special appearances, such as this year’s Australian World Orchestra, Mehta insists he has ‘‘ hardly done any guest conducting. I’ve stayed in one place. I don’t run around much, though I love to tour with an orchestra. I suppose in a sense I’ve grown up with those orchestras. I’ve learned from them all through these years.’’ He pauses to catch the trail of a memory; a pleasant one, evidently, for his face eases into a broad smile. ‘‘ When I started leading the Vienna Philharmonic I was conducting my professors. Later when I returned I was conducting my colleagues from the school. Now they’ve all retired and I’m conducting young kids I don’t know. But the tradition is carrying on,’’ he says, running his hand through hair that is still ample for a man of 77. ‘‘ That’s the greatness of that orchestra. It continues from teacher to pupil. It’s something that I’ve tried to build in Israel, too.’’ Unlike most leading orchestras, the Vienna Philharmonic has dispensed with permanent musical directors; it stages 11 performances a year with 11 conductors, Mehta among them.
He remembers precisely when he first heard the Vienna Philharmonic. It was Brahms’s First Symphony and the legendary Karl Bohm was conducting. ‘‘ I thought my ears were popping open,’’ he recalls with a widening of the eyes and a rising inflexion that registers the joy of hearing what he reverentially calls that ‘‘ Vienna sound’’ for the first time.
This drift of the conversation has stirred the coals of memory and the maestro is warming now. His experience, he recalls, was one of ‘‘ complete immersion’’ in the musical life of the city, studying piano and voice by day — he sang in the concert choir of the Musikverein — and attending concerts and performances every other night. ‘‘ Vienna in the mid-1950s was an ideal place because artists didn’t travel as much in those days. So they would stay in the city. The Vienna opera had an ensemble made of legendary singers who were just living and singing every night.
‘‘ And of course there were the conductors,’’ he continues in a melodic lilt that rises in pitch with the slightest emotion. ‘‘ As well as Bohm there was Karajan, Josef Krips, Erich Kleiber and visits from New York Philharmonic’s Dimitri Mitropoulos every year — these were the great conductors after the war period and they were in Vienna consistently. In school I was learning from Swarowsky the Toscanini tradition of sticking to the letter of the score. So I grew up in a strict classical manner.’’
Another powerful influence, though at a slight geographical remove, was Manchesterbased conductor John Barbirolli, for whom
Mehta’s father Mehli, a violinist, was assistant concert master. ‘‘ I would go from Vienna to visit my father in Manchester once or twice every season but also to go to Barbirolli’s rehearsals. He was a masterful orchestral builder and a man of great repertoire, a real hero in the north of England. I was told that many of the London orchestras offered him positions but he refused, staying loyal to Manchester.’’ This dedication to place registers keenly with Mehta, who is proud of his own loyalties and continuities and, while he has travelled far and risen high, retains a sentimental attachment to his birthplace and the dying religion of his Parsi ancestors.
The salient question for a conductor so deeply nourished by the world’s great orchestras is how to lead a group of musicians who share little except nationality and who will play without the deep collective affinity that only an established orchestra can achieve. How to create a distinctive sound? Mehta is not troubled by the challenge. ‘‘ I will react to their music making,’’ he says with a benign smile that conceals the more exacting side of his professional nature.
The nascent AWO had its first rehearsal in 2011. Simone Young, Sydney-born and Hamburg-based, was at the podium, and it was soon clear the orchestra of wandering Australians had been born with a fully formed and definable sound. ‘‘ The tension in the room was unbearable,’’ Briger recalls. ‘‘ They were all sitting next to their peers and every member of the orchestra knew just how good the other players were and who they played for. They were so nervous.’’ Before Young picked up the baton she noted the tension, looked around her and joked: ‘‘ I feel like I’m looking at the Australian Youth Orchestra with wrinkles.’’
With that jolt of levity the players relaxed. ‘‘ They really gave it their all during those rehearsals,’’ says Briger, who shared the program with Young in that inaugural year. ‘‘ It was no small thing. They’d been dreaming of this and it had finally come off.’’ What Briger heard was a strong German influence. It was no coincidence; most of Australia’s overseasbased musicians play in the German-speaking world — hardly ever in France or Italy — while a tenth of the AWO is based in Vienna.
The line-up this year includes Matt McDonald, first principal double bass for the Berlin Philharmonic. Then there is Lyndon Watts, principal bassoonist for the Munich Philharmonic, and oboist Nick Deutsch, who plays for Mehta’s Israel Philharmonic and is a friend of the conductor. Deutsch is regarded as a key fixer for the AWO and, in Mehta’s words, ‘‘ made it all happen’’ this year. Also included this year are twins Toby (viola) and Ben (violin) Lea from the Vienna Philharmonic; Diana Doherty, principal oboe for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra; Natalie Chee, concertmaster at SWR Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart; Hector McDonald, principal horn of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the most recognised Australian horn player since Barry Tuckwell; and Michael Mulcahy, trombonist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The World Domination Orchestra moniker may be a lighthearted jest, but in some respects it’s not far off the mark. If the AWO were to be reconstituted as a permanent fixture in Australia it might rank in the top 10 world orchestras.
Briger pitched to Mehta with two pieces: the Stravinsky and the Mahler, both of which Mehta has recorded with great distinction. It was a smart move. Not only did this program appeal to Mehta’s tastes and complement the strengths of an impressive orchestra — a Mozart and Haydn pairing would have left half the players idle — it offers the benefit of semblance and dissimilarity. They are ‘‘ two completely different sound tapestries’’, Mehta says of the relationship between Stravinsky’s swirling pagan ballet and Mahler’s piece of late-romantic triumphalism, also known as the Titan. The similarities, such as they are, lie less in the scores than the intent behind them: to do something new. Composed a decade apart,
HE HAS A BELIEF IN THE CAPACITY OF MUSIC TO MAKE THINGS BETTER
these were radical works that sent sonic shockwaves through their first audiences. ‘‘ Mahler was just as revolutionary for his time as Stravinsky,’’ Mehta offers.
A Mahler expert, he is deeply attached to this work. ‘‘ Already in the Second Symphony Mahler is a different composer, but in the First he is a painter of the countryside,’’ Mehta explains. ‘‘ He takes the music to the greatest depths, lays out his soul before you.’’ A prominent feature of this work, particularly in the third movement, is a strain of Jewish folk music that critics refer to as a ‘‘ vulgar’’ motif with an ironic colouring. Mehta sees the Klezmer motif in the third movement differently. ‘‘ Growing up in a small Bohemian village [Mahler] would have heard this music in his local square,’’ he insists. ‘‘ For him that’s not vulgar; that’s folklore. The Jewish dance is a triumphal celebration and his way of celebrating is to go back to what he knows, just as Brahms went back to Hungary, Debussy to Spain, Strauss to the waltz. Composers go back to their original surroundings for folklore.’’
When I ask Mehta if a single event set him on his path, he is emphatic it was something much more profound than a moment in time or a flash of inspiration. He was born into a refined Bombay Parsi family with a rich musical life. His violinist father founded and directed the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. A navy band playing wind and brass joined what Mehta describes as ‘‘ Parsi amateurs, Christians from Goa and Jewish refugees. I would listen to my father practising and teaching and playing, preparing the orchestra for concerts. I had this in my home the whole time.’’
The experience also seems to have seared into his soul a passionate belief in the capacity of music to make things better, even between foes; to dissolve religious, ethnic and cultural barriers, if only momentarily. Perhaps he also has taken something from his beloved Mahler. Like Beethoven before him, Mahler in Mehta’s view always leads his music towards a ‘‘ victory of the spirit’’.
With victory over enmity in mind, Mehta has helped found three classical music schools in Israel that teach Arab students, and he hopes they will one day play in the Israel Philharmonic, while he continues to work with a musical foundation established by Mehli in Mumbai. In September he will lead the Bavarian State Orchestra to the troubled region of Kashmir for a concert featuring Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto. The idea for the concert came from the German embassy in Delhi. And who better to lead it than Mehta, who with great derring-do dropped in to Tel Aviv on a cargo plane loaded with ammunition to direct a concert during the 1967 Six-Day War.
Despite their prodding, Mehta and his friend Daniel Barenboim have never managed to bring off an operatic performance in Israel of Wagner, whose name remains blackened in the Jewish state. Is it time, in Wagner’s bicentennial year, for a performance in Israel of his operas? ‘‘ Yes, of course,’’ Mehta says. ‘‘ Not this year but in the future. If they do it I’ll applaud. It’s about time.’’ He is critical, though, of a production of Wagner’s Tannhauser in Hamburg staged to evoke the Nazi pogroms. ‘‘ I don’t know why these German directors insist on bringing the Nazi times into any opera,’’ he fumes. ‘‘ It’s an obsession.’’
The labyrinthine depth of Mehta’s musical knowledge, when encountered in conversation, is astonishing. He is best known as a leader of the late-romantic and early-modern repertoire, and his sharp insights into the Second Viennese School can be explained partly by his teacher Swarowsky’s training at the feet of that school’s leaders Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern.
Mehta has been conducting opera since his Tosca in 1964 in Montreal and he has developed a relationship of more than four decades with Otello, the work he is preparing in Valencia. A screen behind us shows technicians readying a spare set — there is not a lot of money in Spain for lavish opera — like an outsized mosquito coil. Our conversation turns to the storm scene with which Verdi opens the tale, in medias res, and its engaging dramatic fizz compared with the more lugubrious opening of Shakespeare’s play. ‘‘ You will see,’’ he says excitedly. ‘‘ Come to the rehearsal.’’
But not before I’ve tried the Spanish tortilla. Is it true, I ask, that when he’s not in India he will often take his own chilli to restaurants to inflame the local cuisine? ‘‘ Not often,’’ he shoots back. ‘‘ Always!’’
He points in the direction of the plump golden tortilla, or Spanish omelet, on a table in the corner. Beside it stands a jar of ground chilli and, next to that, a plate of whole dried chilli, potent little crescents of culinary torture. ‘‘ You must try,’’ he urges. ‘‘ Try.’’ I accept a slice of tortilla, batting back the chilli. After a few mouthfuls there is a knock at the door and a Spanish television crew pours in. Mehta apologises, compels me to wait and takes a seat while the interviewer asks his first question: ‘‘ What’s in your mind right now?’’
‘‘ What sort of question is that?’’ Mehta replies, his sharpness of tone softened by that winning smile. ‘‘ Nothing is in my mind but Verdi, Otello, this performance.’’
Moments later I’m herded from the room with the Spanish TV journalists and led to a seat in Calatrava’s spacious auditorium: unlike Utzon’s jewel, a real opera house, not merely the shell of one. Shortly afterwards Zubin Mehta strolls to the podium with regal confidence and readies himself to conduct the general rehearsal of Otello. The orchestra strikes the first clamorous bars of the storm scene: everything is boom crash opera.
Mehta, completely in his element, is coaxing the chorus, urging them on: the heart and mind of an intricate symphonic and vocal organism. In a few months he will fuse together musicians from one remote island nation who have long been separated. But in Valencia tonight he is leading a multinational orchestra in an art form without borders. Compelled by Mehta’s passionate musicmaking, divisions of all kinds disappear and there is just this, this now: the music.
Zubin Mehta, left; the Australian World Orchestra rehearsing in 2011, below
Zubin Mehta with the Israel Philharmonic, above; Mehta conducting, left