It was love at first note in the summer of 1960, when Mr. Mehta led the Philharmonic in Bart‹k's Concerto for Orchestra at Lewisohn Stadium, then New York's summer cultural haven. History repeats itself this March 18 through 21, when he once again conducts the Orchestra in Bart‹k's masterful exploration of orchestral potential.
"It is a sentimental piece for me," Mr. Mehta says. "Playing the Bart‹k at Lewisohn Stadium endeared the Orchestra to me. When I first conducted it as the Philharmonic's Music Director, many of the musicians reminded me of the 1960 performance."
As one of the only classical musicians both to win a Kennedy Center Honor and to have a muppet named after him ("Zubin Beckmesser"), Mr. Mehta is the most prominent living conductor to enjoy a crossover career with pop culture presence, having appeared with Andrea Bocelli and in a Frank Zappa song. His New York Philharmonic years helped establish Zubin Mehta as a name beyond the traditional classical music community.
His tenure as the Philharmonic's Music Director, from 1978 to 1991, was the longest of any conductor. He has since served as Music Director for Life of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) and has enjoyed one of the busiest and most visible guest-conducting careers on the planet. Last month Mr. Mehta was at Carnegie Hall leading the Vienna Philharmonic; next month it's off to Beijing and Mumbai (the former Bombay, and the conductor's hometown), and then Florence, Italy, for Wagner's G‹tterd‹mmerung. Still, he consistently makes room for the New York Philharmonic on his dance card.
"I have always loved this Orchestra, and the 13 wonderful years I had as Music Director gave me many memories," Mr. Mehta says. Among the memories that pour out are of the once-a-year concerts at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, where the Philharmonic played for free as a service to the community; the Philharmonic's 10,000th concert, when he conducted Mahler's Second; and a performance of Bruckner's Eighth at Teatro Col‹n in Buenos Aires, when the Orchestra "went beyond itself." The Concerts in the Parks were invigorating for their sheer energy: "You would not get technically perfect performances in the parks, but huge crowds adoring the Orchestra : that makes a lot of difference."
New music was also a vital part of Zubin Mehta's time as Music Director, including in the Horizons series of the 1980s. "The Philharmonic has always been a standard-bearer for new music," he notes. "Jacob [Druckman, who was Composer-in-Residence at the time] was a great judge of the piles of scores that landed on his desk." Mr. Mehta is still committed to new music, and the young composer highest on his current list of favorites is Avner Dorman, whose Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! for percussion duo and orchestra will open Mr. Mehta's March Philharmonic program.
The 33-year-old composer, son of the IPO's principal bassoonist, credits Zubin Mehta with being "a big inspiration." Mr. Mehta conducted the IPO in Dorman's Variations Without a Theme in 2003. Around that time he auditioned a percussion duo called PercaDu, who played a piece by Dorman that so impressed Mr. Mehta that he threw his support behind a commission for the composer to write the duo a full-fledged concerto: Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! was premiered by the IPO in 2006.
Of this score, which will see its U.S. premiere in the upcoming Philharmonic performances, Mr. Mehta says, "This music is just going to sweep the audience. It has invention, it's so rich. There's no eight bars the same. The Indian influence in the first movement makes me feel at home. The Middle Eastern atmosphere of the second movement is just magical, and the third movement is a tour de force."
The New York Philharmonic was without a Mehta at the helm as of 1991, but the name has returned to the Orchestra's masthead in the person of Zarin Mehta, Zubin's brother, who was named the Philharmonic's Executive Director in 2000, and President in 2004. Zubin boasts: "As a chartered accountant, my brother can balance the books, but since he grew up in our father's home, he has the unique quality of knowing a lot about music."
Their father, Mehli Mehta : the late violinist, conductor, and founder of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra : "was a lasting influence from my earliest days," Zubin Mehta recalls. "Later I went to Vienna and studied with Hans Swarowsky. These two gentlemen shaped me. It was my father's undying love for music and his inner discipline that influenced me most. I hope I have integrated some of that discipline in myself."
Zubin Mehta conducts the New York Philharmonic in Bart‹k's Concerto for Orchestra and PercaDu at Avery Fisher Hall March 18-21. For tickets and information, visit the the New York Philharmonic.
Kenneth LaFave composes and writes about music.