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Maestro Mehta returns, after a long year away

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

By Danna Harman

The Indian-born conductor, who has been leading Israel's symphony orchestra for more than 40 years, talks Wagner, boycotts and classical music in China.

Zubin Mehta is running 40 minutes late to his press conference at the Tel Aviv Hilton Hotel, and the culture correspondents and music critics on hand are getting impatient.

“With all due respect to the maestro, I have a very busy schedule,” whines one older lady.

“Diva, diva, but this is too much,” pipes up another, helping herself to a plateful of mini bagels and lox.

“It’s nice they have a spread here for us and all, but in five minutes, I don’t know about you − but I’m leaving!” proclaims a well-dressed gentlemen, ready to lead the revolution.

And then the man himself walks in, slightly disheveled, a twinkle in his eye and, at 76, as handsome and charming as ever − “Sorry to keep you, I am glad to see you have snacks, shall we start?” − and everyone melts.

“I just wanted to tell you I have loved you ever since you conducted that concert during the Gulf War,” croons one of the complainers, reminiscing about the night the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra kept playing − Scuds being lobbed, gas masks on hand, and all.

“Would you mind posing for a photo with me for my grand-niece?” requests another.

“I just want to shake your hand and welcome you back,” says the would-be revolutionary.

Yes, after his first-ever sabbatical, Mehta, the IPO’s music director for life, is back.

The Indian-born honorary citizen of Tel Aviv, who has been conducting the country’s leading symphony orchestra for more than 40 years and spending about three months every season here, has been sorely missed.

The upcoming season, the Philharmonic’s 77th, will be “just wonderful,” promises the maestro. Okay, he admits with a shrug, perhaps with all the Schubert, Strauss, Mendelssohn and Mozart there may not be enough modern composers for his taste, but he has to live with that. For the Israeli audience − an aging group known for its conservative preferences when it comes to classical music − the line-up is a sure thing.

Mehta is planning to conduct a full 14 performances of the new season’s concert series, featuring soloist pianists Murray Perahia, Yuja Wang, Denis Matsuev and Kun Woo Paik, and violinists Nikolaj Znaider, Joshua Bell, Janine Jansen and Julian Rachlin. Other conductors this season will include Gustavo Dudamel, Vladimir Jurowsky, Christoph Eschenbach, Kirill Petrenko, Christoph von Dohnanyi − and of course the IPO’s honorary guest conductor for life, Kurt Masur.

Three talented “children of” are also to make guest appearances this season: Anoushka Shankar, Ravi Shankar’s daughter, will perform her father’s Concerto for Sitar & Orchestra; Daniel Barenboim’s son, Michael Barenboim, will play Schoenberg’s violin concerto; and soprano Arianna Zukerman, Pinchas Zukerman’s daughter, will sing Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, with her father guest conducting.

After a few questions about the schedule, and some queries about the planned concert-style operas − Tchaikovsky’s “Pique Dame” and Verdi’s “Otello” and “Falstaff” − attention quickly turns to the more pressing matter on everyone’s mind: the anticipated return of the IPO to its rightful home in the refurbished Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv.

The auditorium has been undergoing a massive NIS 140-million renovation over the last year, forcing the IPO out to the less-than-ideal Tel Aviv University auditorium and a big hangar in the Tel Aviv Port. A reported 20 percent of the orchestra’s 26,000 subscribers did not renew their subscriptions last season − promising to return only when they could sit in a proper hall.

“We have all heard rumors about more delays,” worries one man.

“And I hear the acoustics will be harmed by the new shape of the hall,” adds another.

The questions come thick and fast. Leg room? Chair size? More ladies’ bathrooms? The correspondents nod gravely.

Avi Shoshani, the IPO’s secretary-general, tries to set minds at rest. The IPO is scheduled to return to the Mann in March, halfway through the season. By then, Shoshani says, the main hall and lobby are to be finished, even as work continues on the rehearsal rooms, library and other areas.

Savlanut,” advises Mehta, using one of the most well-worn Hebrew words in his limited repertoire, meaning “patience.”

An official gala celebration of the renovated premises is scheduled to take place the third week of May, with violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman and Zukerman on hand to raise a glass of champagne. “Just like the good old days,” says Shoshani, further promising that the new auditorium − with room for 1,500 instead of 1,700 − will feature both more spacious seats and more legroom.

The conversation goes on and on in Hebrew. “Are we still talking about the ladies’ bathrooms?” Mehta asks at some point.

Wagnerian and other boycotts

In an interview with Haaretz after the press conference, Mehta talks about his year away, which saw him hopping between conducting engagements in Florence, Vienna, Zurich, Berlin and Munich, to name a few, and which, as a consequence, was nothing like a vacation. But his extended absence from Israel did afford him the time to do some thinking about his adopted home. “It was eye-opening actually,” he says.

Mehta, who first came to Israel in 1961 at the age of 25, has always said he feels at home in a country in which − “much like in India,” as he puts it − people are always talking, discussing, arguing, dreaming and laughing, all at one and the same time.

His years with the IPO are intertwined with the young country’s history − from the six days he spent in the basement of the concert hall in Jerusalem during the 1967 war, to Barenboim’s and the late Jacqueline du Pre’s wedding at the Western Wall shortly thereafter, where the Zoroastrian had to pretend to be a religious Jew so as to serve as a witness, to the most recent Gulf War, during which he moved evening concerts to mornings to allow Chopin and Tchaikovsky lovers to make it home by curfew.

The man once ranked as the 117th-greatest Israeli of all time ‏(in a Ynet poll, squeaking in right ahead of that world-renowned “Big Brother” host Erez Tal‏), who considers the Tel Aviv Hilton home away from home − despite, he notes, the terrible schnitzel they send up from room service − behaves much like a typical liberal Israeli when it comes to talking politics.

“I am often critical of Israel’s policies when in the country,” he says, “but then feel defensive of them when overseas.

“In general the feeling in Europe is very anti-Israel these days,” admits Mehta. “I start by saying that I understand the exasperation of Israel. One has to know and explain the root cause of Israel’s actions. One has to explain what is happening in Sderot. Why does Israel always have to suffer for others to feel bad for it?” he asks.

“As soon as, say, Saddam ‏Hussein‏ started bombing Israel with Scuds, everyone was like ‘poor Israel.’ But when Israel retaliates − and most of the time they then win − people turn against them.”

That said, stresses Mehta, he would advise Israelis to stop dividing the world into the two categories of “friends” and “non-friends”: “I am always hearing from Israelis, ‘Oh, CNN is anti-Israel,’ or ‘BBC is against us.’ But no, they are reporting facts. One has to have the guts to also say Israel has reason to be exasperated but their [government’s] reactions are frequently totally exaggerated. They lose their patience.”

Israelis today have no idea what kind of conditions the Palestinians are living under, he says, “And most don’t want to know. They are happy to keep the status quo for as long as possible. This is not acceptable.”

Does Mehta think international boycotts of Israeli products, professionals, or cultural events might put pressure on the government and make it realize such a status quo is unacceptable? “Not at all,” he replies, recalling the IPO’s concert in London’s Albert Hall in September last year, as part of the BBC Proms music festival, during which pro-Palestinian protesters interrupted the performance over and over again. “How does that help?”

And while on the subject of boycotts, Mehta reiterates his well-known opposition to the banning of Wagner’s music in Israel. As the first to try and break this unofficial boycott − playing a “Tristan und Isolde” encore in 1981, which was met with boos and walk-outs − he eventually gave up trying to force Wagner down anyone’s throat, but welcomes such attempts by others.

“I honestly do not understand Tel Aviv University,” he says of the recent brouhaha over the decision by the university to cancel a contract with the Wagner Society, which had rented a campus auditorium and intended to perform excerpts from “Der Ring des Nibelungen” and “Tristan und Isolde” there. The university later claimed it was unaware of the purpose for which the auditorium was rented.

“A university is meant to be a place for freedom of expression − they should not have interfered,” says Mehta, adding that the outcome of this affair shows him that little has changed, and that the IPO too will have to wait before going ahead with Wagner.

About the Tel Aviv Hilton’s initial willingness, and then last-minute refusal, to let the Wagner Society use the hotel as the fall-back venue, Mehta is less sorry. “The acoustics would have been awful,” he notes, cringing.

The interview veers off into many directions at once − there is much to talk about, from the voracious appetite for classical music in China, to Mehta’s hope for an Arab-Israeli musician in the IPO, to his involvement in Mifneh, a music education program for the country’s Arab communities, to the issue of the very paltry subsidy the orchestra gets from the government.

But, alas, Mehta needs to head north to a concert in Haifa, then back to another one in Tel Aviv. After a quick hop to India, next week will find him at the Salzburg festival where the IPO will play “Mechaye Hametim” ‏(“The Revival of the Dead”‏), a vocal work by Israel composer Noam Sheriff.

Is there time in between for a quick room service schnitzel? he asks. “But I thought it was terrible?” an assistant reminds him. In any case, the maestro has to rush. He is running late, all over again.