Luke Slat­tery in Va­len­cia with Zu­bin Me­hta

Zu­bin Me­hta, who will lead the Aus­tralian World Orches­tra later this year, talks to Luke Slat­tery

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Zu­bin Me­hta con­ducts the Aus­tralian World Orches­tra at Hamer Hall, Arts Cen­tre Melbourne, on Oc­to­ber 2 and 4, and at the Syd­ney Opera House on Oc­to­ber 3. www.aus­tralian­worl­dorches­

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,


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

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