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"I do whatever the music demands"

Sarah Hiddleston, Mukund Padmanabhan and N. Ram

Zubin Mehta on musical interpretation, the future of western classical music, and his tour of India.



Zubin Mehta: "Conducting is communication." — Photo: Shaju John

Zubin Mehta was 18 years old when he gave up studying medicine and left India to attend the Academy of Music in Vienna. There was no looking back. He quickly went on to conduct the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics and, at age 26, he became the youngest permanent conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. The Mumbai-born maestro, who has served with orchestras around the world, now spends five months each year with the Bavarian State Orchestra.

Mehta's India tour with this Munich-based orchestra, which is performing in India for the first time, comprised concerts in Chennai and New Delhi. A charismatic director, Mr. Mehta has cast a spell on audiences every time he has performed in India. The Hindu caught up with him hours before his first ever concert in Chennai.

You've done Mumbai and Delhi a number of times, but haven't made too many forays into the south. How does your first trip to Chennai feel?

I've always wanted to come to Madras. My father [Mehli Mehta] has played in Madras, probably in the Fifties. I have heard about this huge [music and dance] festival you have in December. I want to learn more about it.

Maestro, your repertoire contains three well-known pieces. What was it that led you to choose these?

We could have brought a bigger orchestra to play Richard Strauss or Mahler or whatever, but we had to leave a certain number of musicians behind [in Munich] to play at the opera. You see, the opera plays every single night... and at the moment, the Christmas season, we have The Magic Flute, ballets. Our orchestra consists of about 140 musicians, which is probably one of the biggest in the world. I think we have brought about 95. And in this kind of conglomeration, we stick to a classical programme.

Beethoven's Fifth, Schubert's Unfinished — were these chosen for India because these are popular and well-known works?

No, these are just classical masterpieces. When you come for the first time, you don't want to foray into anything unusual.

Does a theme of fate run through the programme, from Verdi's Overture to Beethoven's Fifth? I ask this in the context of the tsunami.

We have a big rousing Italian overture. The Unfinished is a rather quiet piece, in that sense introverted. Also, thinking about the tsunami, we brought Beethoven's Fifth, [which represents] the victory of the soul at the end. We are very conscious that we are playing here on this day [the anniversary of the tsunami]. And we hope people are generous enough to donate money to the available funds.

The Verdi overture was written seven years after the opera. How does it tie together with the opera?

It uses material from the opera, right from the first three notes. In many case, the overture has nothing to do with the opera, like The Marriage of Figaro. It just sets the mood. But this is a composite of various elements of the opera.

The Eighth symphony marks a change in the style of Schubert. What are your thoughts on this?

Schubert was a songwriter. He played his songs with singers all his life. He wrote a lot of chamber music, which he heard. He never heard a single of his symphonies played by an orchestra. He was not a prominent composer of Vienna during his lifetime as Beethoven was. Schubert was a peripheral songwriter and he didn't hear the symphonies, he could not make corrections. Therefore, we have to help in the sense that we have to know his chamber music and his songs and then draw a parallel ... between what he wrote in his quartets and quintets with the symphonies.

This piece is the purest form of a masterpiece I know. The two movements are so different, yet they have the same tempo. You don't notice this because the content is so different.

Our orchestra is an opera orchestra. They play symphonic music very rarely — only six programmes a year. The result is that they play this music with such enthusiasm, with all their hearts. If I had come and played La Traviata here, you would not find such an enthusiastic orchestra because they play that all the time. Of course, we couldn't bring the whole orchestra. The opera wouldn't allow us.

But you have brought a good part of it.

Oh, yes. Three quarters. They drew lots to come. Everybody wanted to come. After all, when are they going to come to India again?

And you had to leave on Christmas day to get here.

Yes. And it is a Christian orchestra. For them to travel on Christmas day means something. An American orchestra would have refused on the spot. They would never agree.

You have often been described as a conductor with a flamboyant, energetic style. Is this a matter of individual temperament or would you place this in a different, wider context?

It all comes from the music ... I do whatever the music demands. Whatever I have to do to communicate to my musicians ... the content and the inspiration at the moment. What is conducting? Conducting is communication. And what I communicate at the moment is what I feel and what my musicians need. Because I am there for them. They also appear in the music. One should never forget that.

You have worked with many orchestras. How do you feel about the way different orchestras react to your communications? Is there a particular national element in their responses?

Well, I don't play with that many orchestras. At the moment, I have three main stations in my life. The main one is this one [the Bavarian State Orchestra], where I spend five months. Then there is the Israel Philharmonic and the Maggio orchestra [Orchestra del Maggio Musicale] in Florence. It is with these three orchestras that I do most of my music making. I have just spent a week with the Vienna Philharmonic — a tour of Europe. Then I go sometimes to the Berlin Philharmonic. That's about all I do. So I don't run around conducting various orchestras at all.

Why did you turn down the directorship of the London Philharmonic and the Royal Opera House?

I was offered these many years ago. It's because I couldn't do that and the New York Philharmonic at the same time. Time-wise I could have, but I felt I couldn't concentrate and give my 100 per cent to two such big organisations. Besides, I was always connected to the Israel Philharmonic. I would have had to give that up and I wasn't willing to do that.

You are about do [Wagner's] The Ring in Munich. Do you feel there are comparisons or parallels with Indian epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana?

It's a Nordic epic. I don't think there are too many similarities there. Germans have always been attracted to Indian mythology and literature. Wagner himself was a fan of reading Indian epics, but I don't find any forays into it, into The Ring Cycle. Goethe was a great Indian aficionado but that was much before Wagner's time. This is mainly a sociological epic — about power and greed — The Ring, put in the context of Nordic mythology but he was really meaning the times he was living in. It was the first big Leftist revolution in 1848 that he lived through and was very much part of. It was the clashes of the classes that is portrayed in The Ring Cycle with the background of the Nordic mythology.

You were just 30 when your biography was written. Isn't it time for one more?

I was just correcting it [a moment ago]. But I am writing it in German and so I don't know if it will ever be out in English. More than biography, it's my thoughts on music and generally how music has run my life. Of course, there's biographical content, because I have to space it year by year. It's almost complete.

You wrote it in German?

I wrote it with somebody. My German is good but not to write a book. So I spoke hours and hours into machines and this lady has then put my grammar straight. It will appear on my 70th birthday next year.

You did a collaboration (for the soundtrack in the movie 200 Motels) with Frank Zappa...

That I want to forget about.

Why?

That was not musically or artistically very successful as far as I am concerned.

Your concert on the anniversary of the tsunami? How did that come about?

We didn't plan this visit for the tsunami anniversary. It happened to fall into that slot. But since that happened, we got very serious and I made it almost a condition that I will come if they raise money. Which I hope they will do.

You have been back to India a number of times and must have a sense of the talent for western classical music in this country. Have you seen any changes over the years?

All over the world, more and more Indians are going into it. That's for sure. Not in the way of the Chinese and the Koreans, but there is certainly talent. And we have started a foundation in my father's name in Bombay. Hopefully we will make the first real school of western music once enough funds are accumulated.

There is certainly talent and instead of going out, they should stay in the country and study. When the school has four walls to house it in, we will send teachers. Like the Japanese did after the War. They first imported the teachers and then the next generation taught themselves. That's the way to do it.

There is a perception that in countries that have kept their own classical music traditions — Carnatic and Hindustani in our case — western classical music will not take off so easily. That is countries unlike China or Japan, where there has been a discontinuity from their old classical traditions.

Because we have so much of our own here. China and Japan don't have it — not in music. They have literature and painting ... very advanced, but not music. Therefore, they have espoused the [music of the] western cultures.

(Laughs) We would never even aspire to replace what goes on here with Indian music, which is unbelievable.

In western countries, it has been observed that the interest in classical music, which was always a minority phenomenon, is declining. Allan Bloom, the philosopher, wrote about this in his book, The Closing of the American Mind.

Well, there is certainly a crisis, especially in America, with a decreasing public. And I am glad I am out of it. In places like New York and Los Angeles, there are always full houses. But in the mid-west, there is a programming problem and they have to resort to gimmicks to attract people to the concert hall. In central Europe, there is no problem at the moment. But England, Italy, and France have to be careful.

Then the other crisis in Europe is about money. Governments are subsidising less and less culture. In America, government doesn't do anything. So you don't expect it. If you want it you have to collect the money yourself. But the Americans make it possible to deduct taxes from the funds — so this is a government contribution in a way.

In Italy, there is a huge problem. Mr. Berlusconi's Government cuts subsidies month by month. We had to cancel the opening opera in the festival in May. We have already cancelled an opera in December. It is a travesty. That Italy, where really the arts in our [western] sense have begun ... whether literature, painting or music, it all started in Italy in the Renaissance. They are destroying it. I give one interview after another in Italy accusing them of suffocating their own culture. I worry about it.

On the other side, do you see young talent coming in?

There is talent everywhere. There is no dearth of talent. More in numbers coming from China and Korea. Much more. There is this young Chinese pianist Lang Lang. He comes from a little town in Manchuria. I asked him, `How come you learnt to play the piano in this little town?' He said, `In my city, everybody plays the piano!' So there is a real upsurge in China.

They are building a new opera house in Beijing. They are having a huge music festival connected with the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008.

So western classical music has to look east?

Well, the east is producing a lot of it. India and China are the two countries that are really in a huge resurgence in every way ... I am very proud about what is going on.

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