A native of India, Zubin Mehta (born 1936) was the conductor and director of both the New York and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut on December 29, 1965, with a highly acclaimed performance of Aida.
"Born to the baton" aptly describes the extraordinary career of Zubin Mehta. Maestro Mehta has served as music director of the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Montreal Symphony, and the Israel Philharmonic, to name a few.
Born April 29, 1936 in Bombay, India, Zubin Mehta grew up in a home filled with music. His father was a co-founder of the Bombay Symphony, and the young Mehta heard chamber music and Beethoven quartets before he heard a symphony. He learned to sing what he heard before he could read music. At the age of sixteen, Mehta began conducting concerto accompaniments, leading the orchestra when his father was away on concert tours. At eighteen, Mehta abandoned his medical studies to pursue a career in music at the Academy of Music in Vienna. "I always had the intention of becoming a conductor, not just because I wanted to wave a stick, but because orchestral music appeals to me most," he said.
By the time he was twenty-five, Mehta had conducted both the Vienna and the Berlin Philharmonics and was the music director of the Montreal Symphony. In 1962, at age twenty-six, he became the youngest conductor of a major American orchestra when the Los Angeles Philharmonic appointed him music director. In 1978, he accepted the music directorship of the New York Philharmonic. Mehta's powerful stage presence translates into a strong, provocative management style. "In Los Angeles [as compared to New York] I'm the absolute boss. It's my orchestra," he said.
During Mehta's thirteen-year tenure with the New York Philharmonic, he conducted more that one thousand concerts, and he held the post of music director longer than anyone else in the orchestra's modern history. However, his relationship with the orchestra was a stormy one.
An intriguing question is the role that being Indian has played in the success of his career. "Mehta's career in this internationally minded age has possibly profited from the exotic value attached to being the only India-born conductor to attain prominence," speculated Albert Goldberg, music critic of the Los Angeles Times. "But [Mehta] does not trade on such externals….His musical abilities alone have been sufficient," concluded Goldberg. "Zubin has one of the best techniques around," agreed Los Angeles Philharmonic tympanist William Kraft. "Even the way he holds the baton makes it easier for the orchestra to follow him." In addition to his unquestioned talent, audiences respond to Mehta's impassioned, almost spiritual, performances and to his personal magnetism. Mehta, whose name means "powerful sword," understands the importance of showmanship on stage.
Mehta retains strong ties to his native country and still retains his Indian citizenship. He has taken the New York Philharmonic to Bombay, and when the Festival of India came to the United States, its gala opening on September 11, 1985, was led by Mehta conducting the New York Philharmonic. Mehta's religious roots are also quite deep. He belongs to the Zoroastrian religion, a group commonly known in India as "Parsis" because they emigrated from Persia in the sixth through eighth centuries. There are currently about ninety thousand Zoroastrians in India, twenty-five thousand in Iran, and fifteen thousand in Pakistan. Mehta has participated in a feature-length docudrama entitled A Quest for Zarathustraon the life of Zoroaster and his religion. "It is based on my quest for knowledge of my religion," explained Mehta to John Rockwell of the New York Times.
His religious background and his membership in a minority community contribute to Mehta's strong identification with the state of Israel. "We are the Jews of India, the Persians who didn't mix," explained Mehta to Rockwell. "We enjoy the same minority complexes as the Israelis except we were not persecuted." In 1969 the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra appointed Mehta its music adviser, in 1977 its music director, and in 1981 its music director for life. Altogether he has conducted more than fifteen hundred concerts with the Israel Philharmonic.
Mehta had a mentor in his father, and he clearly has an extraordinary talent, but he also credits his success to taking opportunities when they were offered. "I made half my career by jumping in for others at the last moment. I sometimes think my success was due almost entirely to the misfortunes of my elderly colleagues," he told Goldberg.
Numerous honors have been bestowed on Mehta, including the Nikisch Ring, the Vienna Philharmonic Ring of Honor, and the Hans von Bulow medal bestowed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Mehta has been awarded the Padma Bhushan (Order of the Lotus) by the Republic of India, has received the Defender of Jerusalem Award, and is an honorary citizen of the city of Tel Aviv. He is also the only non-Israeli ever to receive the Israel Prize.
Mehta looks forward to continuing his participation on the international music scene. On June 20, 1994, from the burned out shell of the National Library in Sarajevo, Mehta conducted Sarajevo's orchestra and chorus in a benefit that was broadcast around the globe. In August 1994, he conducted a concert at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles at the close of the World Cup Soccer Tournament, a concert that brought together a trio of popular tenors Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti. He is a leader in the classical music world, staging events to bring performance of great musical works to the largest possible audience.
Further Reading on Zubin Mehta
Bookspan, Martin, and Ross Yockey, Zubin: The Zubin Mehta Story, Harper & Row, 1978.