Mehta — along with his fellow honorees, the film director Steven Spielberg, musical theater composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and singer-songwriters Dolly Parton and Smokey Robinson — received the actual medal at a State Department dinner hosted by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Saturday (December 2).
Last night the honorees were feted at a White House reception and then honored at a gala performance at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The largest salute, at least in numbers, was probably Mehta's: the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he is music director for life, traveled from Tel Aviv to serenade their maestro with a Strauss waltz. In addition, some superstars of soul music — producer Berry Gordy, singer Aretha Franklin, and group The Temptations — paid homage to Robinson; Academy Award-winning actress and Nashville native Reese Witherspoon gave a tribute to Parton, then tabloid favorite Jessica Simpson sang "9 to 5" from Parton's hit movie; musical theater diva Sarah Brightman gave what The Washington Post called "one of the most gracious introductions ever by an ex-wife" to Lloyd Webber; actors Liam Neeson and Tom Hanks saluted Spielberg, along with the U.S. Army Chorus.
The gala was filmed for television and will be broadcast on CBS-TV on December 26 (check local listings).
Born in 1936 in Bombay (now Mumbai) and still a citizen of India, Zubin Mehta was the longest-serving music director in the history of the New York Philharmonic (1978-1991). He has also been music director of the Montreal Symphony (1961-67), the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1962-78) and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich (1998-2006); since 1986 he has been chief conductor of the opera house in Florence and the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra named Mehta its Music Director for Life in 1981.
Zubin Mehta has been the conductor at a number of historic musical events, from the first and second Three Tenors concerts in Rome (1990) and Los Angeles (1994) to a 1997-98 production of Puccini's Turandot on site in Beijing's Forbidden City. In 1994 he conducted a benefit performance of Mozart's Requiem amid the ruins of Sarajevo's National Library; in 1998 he led members of the Bavarian State Orchestra and the Israel Philhamonic side by side in Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony near the former Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald; on December 26, 2005 in Chennai (Madras), India, he conducted a memorial concert on the first anniversary of the great Indian Ocean tsunami.
Established in 1978, the Kennedy Center Honors recognize awardees for "their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts — whether in dance, music, theater, opera, motion pictures or television." Recipients are chosen by the Center's Board of Trustees; excellence is the primary criterion in the selection process; honorees are not designated or chosen by art form and are not limited to Unites States citizens.
For more information about the Kennedy Center Honorees or the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, visit www.kennedy-center.org.