LONDON (Reuters) - Indian-born conductor Zubin Mehta is touring the world with the Israel Philharmonic celebrating its 75th anniversary and his 50th with them, but what he’d like to do is add more Arab capitals to the repertoire.
Mehta, who is the same age as the orchestra which gave its first concert in 1936, said as he prepared to conduct a concert at the BBC Proms in London on Thursday night that the Arab Spring has thrown up new challenges, and new opportunities, for Israel and his Philharmonic.
“One wonderful thing is nobody is blaming Israel for anything that is happening in those Arab countries — usually it is always Israel’s fault,” Mehta told Reuters in a telephone interview from Israel a few days before the Proms concert.
“I hope Israel takes advantage of the new regimes to come close to them and that the new regimes will also try to make a detente with Israel.”
And does that possibly include a role for the Israel Philharmonic, as a musical ambassador of the Jewish state?
“We have scaled so many artistic heights but also on the political spectrum we went to India and China 15 years ago when diplomatic relations were resumed...we went to the south of Lebanon and played in 1982,” Mehta said.
“This orchestra has done things that other great orchestras don’t have to do, thank God, but because we find ourselves in this corner here we have to take part in the ebb and flow of the life of the country. Hopefully we will play music very soon in Amman.”
Or Tripoli? “Who knows? ...yes.”
Here’s what else he had to say about what it’s like working with an orchestra for half a century, his thoughts on having been involved in starry projects like “The Three Tenors,” and why his band is still the best at bringing out “the Jewishness” in Mahler.
Q: What is it like, working with an orchestra for half a century?
A: “I have given more than 3,000 concerts with this orchestra. it would be an understatement to say I feel at home with them. The orchestra is now 100 percent chosen by me...the group that plays now has been handpicked by me. I am very, very happy and comfortable with them and it is nice to come to London after a few years now.”
Q: What are you looking for when you fashion the Israel Philharmonic to your needs?
A: “The priority is flexibility, flexibility in the sense that they play music that encompasses about 400 years. I can’t ask from the orchestra that they play everything with the same sound, or with the same sense of style. When we play Mozart we have one style and one sound, when we play Debussy it is a certain kind of sound and style. When we play Mahler it is obviously the same thing. The flexibility within the orchestra is so incredible that I can put any style in front of them and after of course rehearsing — you can’t get away from rehearsals — the result is quite astonishing.”
Q: Speaking of Mahler, the late Leonard Bernstein, who was a guest conductor of the Israel Philharmonic and recorded some Mahler symphonies with them, said of the orchestra that it was able to bring out the “Jewishness” of Mahler’s music unlike any other. How come?
A: “Although Mahler was converted (to Christianity), especially in his early works the ‘Jewishness’ was huge, it came out of his pen...And the orchestra does that naturally. Every bar of Mahler they make it sound Jewish — that which is Jewishness in Mahler, the folk songs, the folk tunes he uses from his youth, of course we play with the understanding of that Central European pathos.”
Q: You’ve been involved in some very high profile musical events over the years, including a long stint as music director of the New York Philharmonic, conducting concerts by The Three Tenors, the New Year’s concert in Vienna. What gives you a kick these days?
A: “Yes...but we have a great many new recordings with the Israel Philharmonic that one can get over the Internet or our website. We record those at concerts so they are live recordings as we are very proud of those new recordings.”
(Zubin Mehta conducts the Israel Philharmonic with Gil Shaham as soloist in the Bruch Violin Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall in London on Thursday night)
Writing by Michael Roddy, editing by Paul Casciato