Legendary conductor and musical director Zubin Mehta is retiring after 50 years of association with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
In a special concert at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv on Sunday night, Mehta conducted a performance of Verdi’s Requiem and received a ten-minute standing ovation from the crowd.
According to Hebrew news site Walla, the musicians wept as Mehta stepped down from the stage.
Though he will remain with the orchestra until October, this was effectively his farewell performance as musical director.
Mehta, the first non-Israeli citizen to win the Israel Prize and the conductor most widely identified with the Jewish state, was born in India in 1936. His father wanted him to be a doctor, while he wanted to be professional cricket player, but turned to music when he realized he lacked the required talents.
By 25, Mehta had performed with several major European orchestras, but was at an impasse in his young career. Then a series of coincidences occurred that solidified his standing as one of the world’s foremost conductors.
A series of conductors fell ill or canceled their performances, allowing Mehta to take over the conductor’s position with the Montreal and Los Angeles orchestras. Mehta scrambled to learn the requisite scores and then stunned the crowds who had come to see a quite different performance. Mehta eventually became assistant musical director of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra.
In 1961, his association with Israel began when he received a telegram from PALPHILORC, which stood for the Palestinian Philharmonic Orchestra, the old name for the Israel Philharmonic, which for some reason had never been changed in official correspondence.
Again a major conductor had fallen ill and Mehta was recruited. He instantly fell in love with Israel. What he called the “organized mess” he found in the country reminded him of his childhood home in Bombay. In Israel, he said, “People always speak at the same time, everyone gives advice, everyone has a firm opinion. When you open the window in Bombay, you see at the same time five thousand people.” He said he felt, “That I’m at home.”
Mehta quickly put the orchestra through its paces, conducting a series of works that had never been performed in Israel before. He said that, for Israelis, “music gives hope to go on and live a life of peace and tranquility, and at least hope for the prospect of mutual understanding between people.”
He was overseas when the Six-Day War broke out in 1967. Mehta canceled concerts in Paris and Budapest and flew to Tel Aviv with the help of the Israeli ambassador in Rome, who managed to get him on to an ammunition-laden cargo plane. Mehta made the journey, he said, to “stand by the state and my musicians.”
After the war, he was taken on official visits to the Western Wall and eastern Jerusalem, and said, “It was a coincidence that I was privileged to be witness to this great moment and to a certain extent I was also part of it.”
In 1969, Israel rewarded his commitment and artistry, and appointed Mehta musical director of the Israel Philharmonic, a position he held until now.
Mehta also courted controversy on one occasion, choosing to play a composition by Richard Wagner, a virulent antisemite and hero to Adolf Hitler whose works are informally banned in Israel.
Telling the audience that the piece would be played and they were welcome to leave if they objected, Mehta performed the Wagner composition even as people stormed the stage in protest.
It did not damage his reputation in Israel, as he was declared “musical director for life” by his musicians and received the Israel Prize a decade later.