Zubin: A Musical Retrospective

And so the love affair ends. Sixty years, thousands of concerts, millions of memories of the Jewish people’s most loyal musical friend, dropping everything to come back to Tel Aviv whenever there was trouble.

Why did Zubin love Israel so much? He could have gone anywhere, done anything, been the greatest conductor of his time. Instead, he always came back to this little country, not particularly beloved by the countries who most love the music he made. And he stayed, and stayed, and stayed.

There are a number of star conductors hailing from somewhere other than Europe, but unless you count Lenny, whose parents were from Rovno, Zubin was the very first. Before there was Seiji Ozawa, Daniel Barenboim, Gustavo Dudamel, there was Zubin, a twenty-five year old from a distant European colony whose passion so inflamed orchestras and audiences that his future as the giant maestro of his generation seemed all but guaranteed. But even after sixty years in the limelight, and Indian will always feel like an foreigner in Europe, and nobody understands the plight of the European foreigner quite like Israelis.

And so even after all those weeks moonlighting in the most beautiful ancient cities in Europe, collecting some of the highest fees ever awarded a performer, doing his thousand-first performance of Brahms or Tchaikovsky that requires barely any preparation, it was Israel that Zubin always preferred visiting.

And yet, to the end, it was always a visit. Two months of the year in Israel, a tour, and doing mostly the same pieces year in year out, and the same big name soloists. The Israel Philharmonic is one of the world’s most conservative orchestras. The patrons went home happy, but they’re dying off, and barely any inroads have been made to find a new audience. Will anyone replace them?

In Zubin’s fifty years as chief, five generations of potential Israeli music directors have come and gone. Some of them, like Mehta’s contemporary Eliahu Inbal, are among the world’s most underrated, and could have brought international recognition from critics well-past what Mehta brought – the Hasbara value could have been astronomical. Others, like Ilan Volkov, conduct literally everything, and his much more adventurous concerts could have drawn a much younger crowd.

And now, bypassing all of those could-have-beens, the Israel Phiharmonic appointed the youngest contender of all as Zubin’s replacement – Lahav Shani. Clearly, when you appoint a director that young, you mean to keep him in town another fifty years. Is Shani great enough to trust him for that long? Well, maybe…. Zubin’s career is ample evidence that it’s hard to know how great a conductor will be when he’s not yet thirty, but concert promoters have clearly marked Shani for great things. Simultaneous to conducting in Israel, he will be director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and may pursue a solo piano career in addition. In fifteen years, will the Israel Philharmonic have an audience big enough to keep a superstar conductor in town?

Shani is clearly talented, but like many star conductors, his engagement seems inconsistent. But just a little older than Shani is one of the world’s greatest, and he’s Israeli too. Omer Meir Wellber can divide critics, but there is no more gifted young conductor in the world.  Few conductors of any age give performances that exciting, that imaginative, that engaged. He might shake things up, but he would have changed the Israel Philharmonic just enough to ensure its long-term survival. Shani will leave before he’s fifty, but by then Wellber might be too old, and the problems will be passed to yet another generation.

But even with all those quid-pro-quos, it’s not like Mehta’s oh so long Israeli tenure can be counted anything but a triumph. What cannot be questioned was the enormity of Zubin’s talent. Mehta is a Vladimir Horowitz of the orchestra. A technical virtuoso who can summon gale forces of sound and energy, who can draw forth any effect of which his mind conceives.

When Zubin first appeared on the concert circuit in the early 60’s, such was his immediate impact on the music world that one famous conductor, the half-Jewish Josef Krips, declared of Mehta that ‘The next Toscanini is born.’ Arturo Toscanini was almost unquestionably the most venerated conductor in the twentieth century’s first half, but I have yet to meet a single musician or music lover who would say Zubin Mehta is anything even close to the most distinguished of the twentieth century’s second half. What was it about Mehta fifty years ago that so inflamed audiences, and what did he lose in the meantime?

Before roughly 1980, Mehta’s recordings tell of a very different musician. Whatever the piece, you immediately hear why Zubin drew such adulation from so many. If they sounded a little generic beneath the excitement, there was every reason to expect that Mehta’s artistry would grow with time, and that by now, he’d long since be mentioned in the same breath as Toscanini and Bernstein.

So what happened? Well, to this day, the best of Mehta is a literally awesome experience, but too much gift can be as limiting as too little, aut as the years went on, his new performances sounded exactly like the his old performances, except with an older man’s flagging energy. One hallmark of a great musician is that he is always evolving. Leonard Bernstein, Otto Klemperer, and Daniel Barenboim all played the music they’d played a thousand times completely differently as they evolved along with their relationship to the music. Mehta sounded the same as ever before, except a little slower, a little sloppier, a more listless. Conductors are supposed to peak in their 80s, but Zubin Mehta never got better than he was around forty.

Perhaps Zubin’s life was too charmed. Everything seemed to come to him so easily: he was so gifted, so intelligent, so handsome, so instantly beloved by millions, what reason was there to prove himself? Or perhaps, as an Indian in an extremely Western profession, he was intimidated to put a fully personal stamp on the music lest bigoted accusations be issued from critics that he’s a foreigner who dares to personalize music in a manner they find unidiomatic. Once upon a time, such ugly complaints were leveled at a Jewish conductor named Gustav Mahler…

Whatever the reason, a new Mehta was born around 1980; more a jet-setting celebrity than a great musician. The fees Mehta commanded were astronomical, and whatever orchestra paid the money, Zubin would show up. If you have to be more a celebrity than an artist, there are few ways to be a celebrity better than Zubin has. Dropping everything when Israel goes to war, performing in other war zones as dangerous as Kashmir and Kosovo, raising money for all kind of relief funds. Even the famous ‘Three Tenors” concerts (remember those?) that Mehta conducted. The fee for the first and most famous concert was very small – the vast bulk of the profit was given to charity. Zubin, whatever his other flaws, is clearly a mensch in all kinds of ways. But then came the Three Tenors touring concerts, and no classical performers in history ever had a cash cow bring them more milk.

Like every major classical performer, Zubin Mehta has his ‘party pieces’, the music he knows so well that he can give a performance as well or better than any other conductor in the world, even if he doesn’t reacquaint himself with the score before the first rehearsal. In the more noisy, colorful corners of the repertoire, Zubin is the equal of any conductor in the history of the profession: Mahler’s first three symphonies, Bruckner’s 8th, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Gurrelieder, a dozen works by Richard Strauss, and half a dozen operas each by Verdi, Puccini, and you know who…. Mehta can make you think the work was written just for him. Beneath the noise and vitality, the might be an emotions in the music which a Leonard Bernstein or Daniel Barenboim bring out that a Mehta performance lacks, but Zubin’s noise is so joyful that you’re rarely cognizant of what’s lacking until the performance is over.

But there’s plenty of great music, perhaps greatest of all, in which a conductor can only hold your attention with the power of his introspection and insight; you’re either moved to tears or you’re bored to tears, and in those pieces Mehta has the rare distinction of sounding like a more mature artist at thirty-five than at seventy-five. In the most substantial stuff that separates the great from the good – Mozart and Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, the older Mehta could sound as though he either had no idea what he was doing or didn’t care.

Even in this kind of repertoire, there were nights when he was soulful enough to draw tears, but if recordings tell the full story, these nights got less and less frequent as the decades wore on. In the 1970s, the Israel Philharmonic recorded the full Schubert symphonies under Zubin. Schubert is one of the most difficult composers to perform – technically easy, but only interesting when the performer completely understands the music. And yet the result was an album for the ages. On the other hand, about ten years ago, Decca Records released all the Mehta performances of the Israel Philharmonic from their 70th anniversary season. It would have been better Hasbara to never let anyone hear them. Worst of all was a Schubert 9, his longest symphony, so dull it could make flies drop to the floor. I could name a dozen other re-recordings for which that’s also true.

Whether in the concert hall or in the opera house, what Zubin truly excels at is putting on a show. The very best of Zubin is to be found in the opera house, and there is something of the opera house’s atmosphere that not even a concert performance of an opera can give.

The closest at the Mann Auditorium you get to the opera house is when one of Zubin’s many, many, many soloist friends comes to play. Like so many gregarious extraverts, Mehta works at his best in collaboration, and every older Israeli orchestra attendee has scores of unforgettable nights with the world’s greatest soloists, with Zubin bringing out the very best in all his musician friends. But a concerto is generally only 30 minutes, an opera is a whole night. The best of Zubin is to be found in opera, and not just opera, in Wagner…

Wagner will remain controversial for Jews long after the last survivor passes away, but in ignoring Wagner, we’ve not only ignored the best of our best musical friend, we’ve ignored one of the best ways of guiding Europe to come to terms with their complicity in Jewish suffering. Imagine, just for a moment, the impact an Israeli production of Wagner would have had. It would have been an international event, curiosity would have been such that it would demand an international tour. Imagine an Israeli production of Die Meistersinger – an opera about amateur musicians in a German town – c set in a pre-’48 Kibbutz, or Tristan und Isolde – a Romeo and Juliet-like love story – set in Neve Dekalim or Ma’aleh Adumim. These very German stories would become Israeli stories too, told in a language Europeans could understand, and could help some Europeans to have just a little empathy for Israel’s plight when they previously had none. Zubin was the ideal guide to mediate Wagner’s introduction to Israel and Israel’s introduction to Wagner, and when he tried in a mere encore, he was threatened with violence.

And so, instead, we generally got Zubin in the same thirty pieces of music for fifty years. It was formulaic, it required relatively little preparation, it turned off newer generations of listeners, but it worked for the patrons who stayed loyal to Zubin for his whole career. And now, the unthinkable has happened, he’s gone. What next?

The Best of Zubin in Israel on youtube

Mahler’s Ressurection at Masada – In order for Mahler to stage a Resurrection, he has to describe an apocalypse in music, and no conductor but Leonard Bernstein conveyed the existential stakes of this music as thrillingly as Mehta. Zubin was made for this music. The sheer mind boggling energy of it…. it’s enough to make a believer of any of us.

Mahler 1st Symphony – Between you and me, dear reader, it’s a much more interesting piece of music than the Resurrection, and few conductors or orchestras have ever dug into all the little byways of character like Zubin does here. No-one, not even Lenny, ever got the Klezmer passages to sound this vivid. A vivid, moving performance of a vivid and deeply moving work.

Beethoven’s Pastoral SymphonyBrahms Symphony no. 2, – These performances are good enough to make me eat every one of my words about Zubin in more introspective pieces. The Israel Philharmonic absolutely sings and dances here. You’ll just have to take my word that performances like these are hard to find.

(Just as an example, compare this to a rendition of Beethoven 5th, even if the sound weren’t terrible, this performance could put you to sleep.)

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons Stern, Perlman, Zuckerman, Mintz. Four of the greatest violinists in the world on one stage. What more need be said?

Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto Henrik Szeryng, the great Jewish-Mexican violinist, comes to Israel.

Chopin’s First Piano Concerto The octogenarian Arthur Rubinstein performs his beloved Chopin in Tel Aviv with Zubin accompanying him.

The Best of Zubin elsewhere on youtube:

Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra and Alpine Symphony (Los Angeles) In another of Zubin’s many paradoxes, there is no composer to whom he has done greater service than that Nazi collaborator, Richard Strauss. He’s simply one of Richard Strauss’s greatest advocates. No composer made more colorful sounds than Strauss, and Mehta conjured every one of them with tastable vividness.

Puccini’s Turandot: (Forbidden City) Hopefully it’s not typecasting, but no major conductor has ever returned to Puccini’s last, incomplete masterpiece with so much frequency or incontrovertible success. This performance in China’s Forbidden City where the action may be said to take place, must be counted definitive.

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde: (Munich) Every major conductor of romantic repertoire puts their own interpretation on the monster-piece of monster-pieces. Has anyone got further into the sheer lush eroticism of this piece than Mehta? However ridiculous you think the production is, Mehta’s infinite reserves of energy and voluptuousness are like a taking a drug, he makes you hear exactly why Wagner is so great, and so dangerous.

Verdi’s Aida: (Rome) From the 1960s when Zubin was thought the world’s most promising young conductor and Verdi was still sung by huge voices in the heat of passion, what a thrilling era that must have been.

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (Berlin) Few conductors ever captured this much raw vigor and force. This performance leaves little about how Mehta does it to the imagination. Like Bernstein before him, Mehta could galvanize an orchestra by the pure dint of his physical charisma until quite recently.

Schubert 9: (Vienna) Zubin’s official Israel recording comes from the late 70s, and seems made by a completely different conductor than the one from 2007 who recorded one of the most boring performances I’ve ever heard. This one, from the Vienna Philharmonic in 1985, shows that when the spirit moved him, Mehta could be as good as ever before.

Mozart’s Gran Partita: (Berlin) No matter how boring his reputation elsewhere, the top two orchestras in the world, Vienna and Berlin, keep inviting him back. Perhaps this is where the old Mehta goes to make music.

Bruckner: Symphony no. 8 (Vienna) What a massive noise he could draw.

Rachmaninov Piano Concerto no. 3 (New York) Zubin accompanies the most notoriously difficult and particular of all soloists to work with, and they give an ultimate performance.

Wagner: Die Walküre (Chicago) The sound isn’t great, but it commemorates perhaps the greatest triumph of his career. After thirteen years of critical drubbing in New York, Zubin Mehta went to the Lyric Opera of Chicago where he apparently worked like a dog to train a not particularly distinguished opera orchestra to sound like the Los Angeles Philharmonic during Mehta’s glory days. When speaking of Zubin at his theatrical best, this is what we mean.

Zubin does Ravi Shankar: (London) Ravi Shankar and Zubin Mehta were close friends, and whenever Shankar did one of his (surprisingly good) classical compositions, Mehta was around to conduct.

Zubin does Frank Zappa: (Los Angeles) I think it’s best to end here….

About the Author
Evan Tucker, alias A C Charlap, is a writer and musician residing in Baltimore. He is currently composing music for all 150 Biblical Tehillim. A Jewish Music Apollo Project - because "They have Messiah, we have I Have a Little Dreidel." He is currently on #11. Eight of the first ten are pretty avant garde, but they're going to get more traditional as he gets further in. https://accharlap.bandcamp.com/ Evan also has a podcast called 'It's Not Even Past - A History of the Distant Present' which is a way of relating current events to history and history to current events. https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/itsnotevenpast Most importantly, he is also currently working on a podcast called Tales from the Old New Land, fictional stories from the whole of Jewish History. The podcast is currently being retooled, the link to the new version will be up in the next month or so.
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