Zarin Mehta : on New York, Chutzpah, and the New York Philharmonic

Classic Arts Features   Zarin Mehta : on New York, Chutzpah, and the New York Philharmonic
As the Philharmonic's President and Executive Directorprepared to turn over the reins, he spoke with Monica Parksabout his 12 years with this Orchestra.


Zarin Mehta, President and Executive Director of the New York Philharmonic, arrived 12 years ago following a series of leadership posts at the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and at Chicago's Ravinia Festival. During his tenure he has traveled the world with the Orchestra, collaborated with three Music Directors, and attended thousands of concerts. As this eminent leader approaches the conclusion of his time with the Philharmonic, we asked him to reflect on his tenure.

Why did you come to the New York Philharmonic?

Because I wanted to live in New York! [chuckle] Actually, it was almost a family tradition to be in New York. My father lived here in the late 1940s, so my family lived here vicariously through him, by reading about his experiences at concerts and other New York events, so we felt as though we knew the city quite well. And, of course, my brother [Zubin Mehta] was here for many years [as Music Director]. Also, because anybody working in this business has to be in New York regularly, I knew New York well before I came, so it felt natural to move here.

What has struck you as being special about this Orchestra?

The excellence, versatility, and passion of the performances by these musicians is universally accepted, so I will not talk about that. Instead, I point to the friendliness amongst the players, despite differences in cultural heritage, native language, and age. Most other orchestras have pre-set chamber groups, so I am continually amazed at the cross-fertilization of players when the musicians make their programs for the Merkin Concert Hall series. I think that's extraordinary! These musicians thoroughly enjoy working with each other, which I think is the hallmark of why this is such a great orchestra.

Would you share your thoughts about the three Music Directors with whom you've worked here?

I already knew Kurt Masur [Music Director, 1991 _2002] rather well before I came to New York, and he was happy to see me come here. The two seasons we worked together had largely been programmed before I arrived, but we did go on three major tours together. I was especially gratified with the hospitality he and his wife, Tomoko, showed me and my wife, Carmen, when we were in Rio in 2001; that's where he had met Tomoko, and they took us on a daylong sightseeing trip, which was wonderful, and a lovely example of the kind of relationship we shared.

I really didn't know Lorin Maazel [2002 _09] until he came to guest conduct in November 2000, but we got to know each other well in those two weeks. Although this wasn't the first major music directorship of his career, he was extremely enthusiastic about the position. The respect and admiration that he shared with the musicians was apparent from the start and continues to this day, and his international reputation and public following was evident on the various tours he led, particularly in the Far East, Italy, and Germany, where he is lionized.

Alan Gilbert [who became Music Director in 2009] started to make waves at his Philharmonic debut in 2001, and over the following years the Orchestra, the public, and I got to know him and see him grow into the position that he has assumed very naturally. Alan is full of ideas, of course, but less obvious to outsiders is how hard-working and always so very well prepared he is. He has been a pleasure to work with, and it has been amazing to see how, in his hands, the Philharmonic has established a vibrant and even greater virtuosic personification than it had had before.

You've traveled to four continents with the Philharmonic; what is your reaction when you read of our being a cultural ambassador?

If we are in Los Angeles we are representing New York, and if we are in Tokyo we are representing the United States. The pride the musicians display permeates the audience, and there is an extraordinary joy in beholding that. There is certainly friendship, fellowship, through the medium of music. No matter the nationality of the composer, or the country we are performing in, we are sharing in music together. This is a wonderful display of the human ethos.

This sense of community accompanied the Orchestra on all our travels : we've been welcomed not only by audiences, but also by diplomats who have, in the most gracious way, hosted the Philharmonic's musicians and Patrons at special events from Paris to Hanoi. I do hope one day to see the Philharmonic able to share such experiences in Cuba.

What has been your greatest challenge?

Getting up the chutzpah to ask someone to lend us a 747 airplane at no cost! I still ask myself, how could I have done that? Because it was the only way we could get to North Korea. I am eternally grateful to Asiana Airlines for making it possible; the visit to Pyongyang wouldn't have happened without that. At the end of that concert, the Philharmonic received a lengthy standing ovation of the most genuine and spontaneous nature, and then the audience and the musicians began to wave to each other. In that moment the wall that so often separates those on the stage from those in the seats disappeared, and a deeper divide seemed to be bridged. This extraordinary image of broad smiles and flowing tears is one that will remain with me always.

What else stands out in your memory?

There were many great moments. To mention just a few: the performance of the Brahms German Requiem that Masur led here shortly after September 11, 2001; a concert in a park in Sê£o Paolo for 80,000 people; a Beethoven Ninth in Taiwan, with 25,000 people outside the hall watching it on a screen; the reopening of Dresden's Frauenkirche, with Lorin conducting Strauss's Death and Transfiguration; Alan's first concert in Central Park, with 80,000 people; the tenth anniversary of 9/11, with thousands lined up outside to get tickets, and with many who had been directly affected by that day gathered in the hall. What was more remarkable about that concert is that it was funded by our Global Sponsor, Credit Suisse, which saw its importance to the global community.

What are your hopes for the future, for the Philharmonic, and for yourself?

I have always felt that cultural organizations should change leadership on a fairly regular basis. As Music Directors change, so Executive Directors should also change because new blood brings new directions and new thoughts : it is important to keep an institution as fresh and refreshed as possible. I know that my successor, Matthew VanBesien, will bring his creativity to bear in determining the direction that the Philharmonic will go in the next decade or so. As for me, I would like to be able to advise institutions on directions and cultural content, programming, and fundraising, as well as on health and vitality. I also want to learn to speak German and Italian.

What do you feel about your dozen years at the New York Philharmonic?

I've been extremely happy here. My wife and I have had a wonderful rapport with the musicians, and have made many friends amongst the public and the Philharmonic Board of Directors. We love this city and the people in it.


Monica Parks is the Director of Publications at the New York Philharmonic.

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