There are very few people who can boast of having conducted the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berliner Philharmoniker when they were only 25. Among them is Zubin Mehta, who made his debut with the Philharmoniker at that age in Berlin on 18 September 1961, and who celebrates his 80th birthday on 29 April this year. Following the concert, he was hailed by the press as a “discovery from India”, and as the “up-and-coming man of his age group”. Prophetic words indeed. Not only because the Mumbai-born Zubin Mehta went on to develop a phenomenal career in a very short time, but, with regard to the Berliner Philharmoniker, no other guest conductor has worked so long, regularly or consistently with the orchestra as he. Almost every year he has stood on the podium of the Philharmonie or conducted at the Easter Festival in Salzburg and Baden-Baden. Looking back, the stylistic range of his repertoire is impressive. He has covered all styles and genres: Classical, Romantic, Modern, new music, symphonic, opera, and oratorio. In his almost 55-year-long collaboration with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Zubin Mehta has repeatedly succeeded in surprising with the unconventional and the new: Just think of his most recent appearance in September 2015 when, in addition to Camille Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto, he also programmed the interlude from the opera Notre Dame by Franz Schmidt, a now almost unknown composer who was a cellist in the Vienna Court Opera orchestra during the Mahler era.
Early love of Western music
Although Zubin Mehta grew up in a culture in which access to and the study of Western music was not a matter of course, the cornerstone of his musical career was laid in the parental home: Mehta’s father Mehli, a violinist and conductor and founder of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra, made every effort to inspire a love for classical music in his son and to give him a solid musical education. Zubin Mehta, who regards Wilhelm Furtwängler and Arturo Toscanini as his most important role models, acquired the technical know-how for the profession of a conductor during his studies at the Wiener Musikakademie. At the beginning of the 1960s, Zubin Mehta, who won the International Conducting Competition in Liverpool in 1958, launched himself artistically – on several levels. Not only did the aforementioned debuts with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berliner Philharmoniker take place in this period: he also became chief of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and he conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time, standing in for the indisposed Eugene Ormandy. A fateful event. Mehta and the musicians got on like a house on fire, and at the same time the conductor experienced at first hand the political conflicts in Israel. Ever since he has also regarded his artistic work as a means of international understanding. In 1969 he became a consultant, in 1977 chief conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and finally in 1981 music director for life.
Artistic anchor points
When Zubin Mehta takes up a post, he usually stays there for a long time: From 1978 to 1991, he was chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic; from 1998 to 2006, music director of the Bavarian State Opera, and since 1985, he has been head of the Maggio Musicale in Florence. Mehta, who has been inundated with honours and awards during his life, including the “Nikisch-Ring” and the Furtwängler Prize, knows the international concert and opera scene – so to speak – like the back of his hand. Nevertheless, he has made sure over all these years that there have been a few, but important, artistic anchor points in his eventful life. The Berliner Philharmoniker, as he has repeatedly stressed in interviews, is one of them.