60 years together, Zubin Mehta and the Berliner Philharmoniker can look back on a long artistic friendship. “I have now had the honour of conducting three generations of Berliner Philharmoniker musicians. The orchestra has evolved over the years, but the deep-rooted, magnificent, substantial sound has been preserved,” says the conductor, who has been a guest of the orchestra almost every year since his Philharmoniker debut on 18 September 1961.
Mehta can still remember his debut in the concert hall of what is now Berlin University of the Arts. In addition to Gottfried von Einem’s Orchestral Music op. 9 and Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto, he also conducted Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony, a work he then performed for the first time.
“My advantage,” he grins, “was that the orchestra also didn’t know the piece so well. At that time, Mahler’s compositions were not yet part of the core repertoire of symphony orchestras.” Zubin Mehta’s deep understanding of this work was gained from Bruno Walter, the former assistant of Mahler, with whom he thoroughly prepared the score.
After his Philharmoniker debut, he was prophetically acclaimed by the press as a “discovery from India” and as the “up-and-coming man of his age”.
Zubin Mehta, who was born in Mumbai into a musical family, was at that time at the beginning of an unprecedented career during which he has held several prestigious chief conductor positions: with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1962 – 1978), the New York Philharmonic (1978 – 1991), Bayerische Staatsoper (1998 – 2006) and the Maggio Musicale in Florence (1985 – 2017).
Fate took a hand when he first conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, standing in for an indisposed Eugene Ormandy: Mehta and the musicians developed an immediate rapport, while at the same time, the conductor experienced first hand the political conflicts in Israel. Ever since, he has regarded his artistic work as a means of international understanding. He became a consultant to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 1969, chief conductor in 1977, and ultimately music director for life in 1981. Together with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta is committed to supporting young musicians. The Buchmann-Mehta School of Music in Tel Aviv which he initiated, promotes the country’s most talented music students.
Viennese apprenticeship years
Mehta laid the foundations for his career in Vienna. While studying under Hans Swarowsky at the Wiener Musikakademie, he not only acquired the necessary skills for his profession, but he also had the opportunity to observe great conductors at work such as Bruno Walter, Herbert von Karajan and Karl Böhm.
He made friends with Daniel Barenboim and Claudio Abbado, who, like him, was among the emerging talents. Mehta described his time in Vienna as one of the most important phases of his life, because he was able to establish the professional and human network which was crucial for his subsequent artistic success.
Even then, the course was set in the direction of Berlin: Herbert von Karajan, the then chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, became his mentor. He also developed his friendship with Claudio Abbado, later chief conductor of the Philharmoniker.
“We were like brothers,” remembers Mehta. In the twelve years of Abbado’s tenure alone, Zubin Mehta conducted 61 concerts with the Berliner Philharmoniker and when the chief conductor died in 2014, he led the memorial concert for the friend.
But not only this concert stands out. The conductor and orchestra have experienced many great moments together: the concert for Igor Stravinsky’s 80th birthday, a concert performance of Richard Strauss’ Salome, and in particular – the most emotional event to date – a concert in Tel Aviv during the orchestra’s first tour to Israel in 1990, during which the musicians of the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra played side by side under Mehta’s direction.
In their many years working together, Zubin Mehta, who became an honorary member of the Berliner Philharmoniker in February 2019, repeatedly manages to surprise by programming rarely heard works such as the interlude from the opera Notre Dame by Franz Schmidt, Ravi Shankar’s Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra No. 2, and Peter Eötvös’ Speaking Drums with percussionist Martin Grubinger.
Other highlights in the last years was Verdi’s opera Otello, which he and the Philharmoniker performed as a new production at the Easter Festival in Baden-Baden and in a concert performance in Berlin, and the tour to Japan with the orchestra in 2019.