Zubin Mehta interview: ‘Sometimes I have had to be tyrannical’

Zubin Mehta before a concert with the Belgrade Philharmonic last year - Shutterstock
Zubin Mehta before a concert with the Belgrade Philharmonic last year - Shutterstock

For more than 60 years, Zubin Mehta has been at the top of his profession. He was head of some of some of the world’s greatest orchestras including the New York Philharmonic and the Bavarian State Opera, and is famous enough to be mentioned in an 80s pop song called Maggie by BA Robertson. A contemporary of Daniel Barenboim’s, and one of the last survivors of the era of imperious maestros of the podium, this week he appears at the Proms with the Australian World Orchestra, an assemblage of top Australian musicians picked from great orchestras around the world.

Now 86, he’s physically frail (he suffered from a kidney tumour several years ago), and when we meet at his Berlin hotel he is in a wheelchair. Mehta doesn’t want to talk about his illness, and I get a sense that he is someone who lives very much in the present. Having observed his performance of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale the previous evening at the Boulez-Saal, I can confirm that his conducting still has an extraordinary fluency that makes him seem as if he is doing almost nothing.

First off, he asks me for the latest Test match score (which I fail to deliver), a reminder that this globetrotting conductor is also very much a child of the British Raj. At the time of his birth in 1936, it still had 11 years to run, and he recalls it vividly. “I remember as a boy seeing British soldiers in the streets, and we would always shout the same two words at them: ‘Quit India.’

“But I can’t say I felt personally oppressed by the British. For my father, it was different. He was a violinist, mostly self-taught, and would play for the Viceroy when he arrived, and in clubs where Indians were not allowed. He and the other players would eat in the servants’ quarters. He was infuriated by that and felt quite bitter towards the British.”

Mehli Mehta, a remarkable musician, founded the Bombay Symphony Orchestra in 1935, and in 1955 went to England, eventually becoming leader of the orchestra under John Barbirolli. Having sat in on his father’s rehearsals for years, Mehta soon came to a realisation. “I didn’t want to be an instrumentalist, I wanted to play that instrument – the orchestra.”

Mehta with Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim in the early 1970s - Alamy
Mehta with Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim in the early 1970s - Alamy

Indeed after studying under the great Hans Swarowsky (who described the eager young Mehta as a “demon who can conduct anything”) in Vienna, Mehta followed his father to England and became assistant to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s chief conductor John Pritchard in 1958.

For a young Indian man, England was a forbidding place. “It wasn’t a happy year. It was hard to find anywhere to live as many landlords would not accept an Indian person. The orchestral players were very good to me I must say, they actually took me seriously.” Pritchard, however, took no interest in his assistant. “He would give me almost no rehearsal to prepare for a huge concert.”

Still, Mehta soon shook the dust of Liverpool off his shoes. Within three years he had made electrifying debuts with the Berlin, Vienna and Israel Philharmonic orchestras, and had bagged his first directorship, with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Nine years later, in 1970, he took part in the famous filmed performance of Schubert’s Trout Quintet as a double-bass player, alongside Daniel Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Jacqueline du Pré – probably the starriest lineup ever assembled for a filmed classical performance.

The mention of Daniel and “Jacqui”, who by then had been married for three years, makes Mehta’s face light up. “Jacqueline was talented in a special way. She was simply a miracle, she had no basic knowledge of music, and yet she had this incredible instinct. You know her very last orchestral concert was with me? [in 1973, 14 years before her death from multiple sclerosis at the age of 42]. It was meant to be Strauss’s Don Quixote, which has a huge solo part, but she asked me if she could play the Elgar concerto instead, and how could I say no?

“I have hardly ever conducted the Elgar since. I can’t do it. I just break down. In later years she would come to my concerts in her wheelchair and she would blow kisses at me.” For a moment Mehta is too overcome with emotion to speak, and it’s not the only time I see evidence of his strong feelings. When I mention Mehta’s old friend the late, great sitarist Ravi Shankar, with whom he often performed Shankar’s second sitar concerto, he comes close to tears, and when I bring up the current state of politics in India he winces in pain.

“The oppression of the Muslims is horrible. I can’t bear to think of it,” he says (Mehta himself comes from one of Bombay’s eminent Parsee families).

Mehta conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Paris, 1967 - Getty
Mehta conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Paris, 1967 - Getty

In 1977 Mehta became music director and eventually music director for life of the Israel Philharmonic, an orchestra born out of idealism but which in recent decades has been in the firing line of Middle Eastern politics. It was formed in 1936 from European Jewish musicians fleeing to Palestine from Nazism, and soon became renowned as one of the world’s great orchestras, but its 2011 Proms performance was disrupted by pro-Palestinian protestors, and there are constant calls to boycott the orchestra’s international tours. Mehta is adamant that his decision to resign in 2019 had nothing to do with the current state of Israeli politics.

“I just felt it was long enough. I had been there for 50 years, and I learned so much from them, and it was simply time for someone else to take over. But occasionally I go back.

“You know, my dream is to see the first Palestinian musician join the Israel Philharmonic, and I know that day will come, it must come.”

Mehta is genial company, yet he comes from an era when conductors such as George Szell and Arturo Toscanini would terrorise musicians in rehearsal. But he claims he’s never been one of their number. “My job is to make musicians feel comfortable with what they are playing, and to do that I believe they have to understand the form of the music.” Is he saying he’s never lost his rag?

“Sometimes I was tyrannical with the Israel Philharmonic. I had to be, because basically they are not disciplined as a people. Have you ever seen films of the Israeli parliament? They all speak at the same time!” he laughs (clearly he’s never watched BBC Parliament). “But you know, they play beautifully and with such heart.”

Mehta has been living in California for decades, though he keeps his Indian citizenship, and is more than 50 years into his second marriage. He has achieved a great deal in his long life, although you sense he is someone who wants to keep going. Does he have any unfulfilled ambitions?

“I have never conducted Wagner’s Parsifal, which is strange as I have led opera houses for years.” And with that he’s off to get ready for a performance of Puccini’s Turandot. Mehta’s body may be frail, but his mind and passion for music are as bright as ever.

Zubin Mehta conducts the Australian World Orchestra at the Proms on Aug 23 at the Royal Albert Hall (as part of the UK/Australia season 2021-22). Tickets: 020 7070 4441; bbc.co.uk/proms