Zubin Mehta, who has conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra for the past 47 years, announced Monday that he plans to retire in October 2019.
The Indian-born musical director, who celebrated his 80th birthday this year, made the announcement at a special gathering of the orchestra’s musicians. At the same time, he sketched out his time with the IPO, from his first day on the job in 1969 until the present.
Mehta joined the Philharmonic as its music adviser, later becoming its music director in 1977. In 1981 the orchestra appointed him Music Director for Life.
Mehta was born in Bombay in 1936, which is also the year that the IPO was founded as the Palestine Orchestra. His father, Mehli Mehta, was the founder of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra.
Mehta made his conducting debut in Vienna in 1958 and went on to become music director for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra from 1961 to 1967. From 1962 until 1978 he directed the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and for the following 13 years directed the New York Philharmonic.
Despite having led the Israel Philharmonic for almost half a century, Mehta does not speak Hebrew, though he speaks fluent German and can get by in Yiddish. Nor is he Jewish, though speaking of his Persian background he told the New York Times in 1998 that “We are the Jews of India.”
In 2012, Mehta was awarded a Presidential Medal of Distinction by then Israeli President Shimon Peres for his “outstanding contribution to culture in the State of Israel.”
Peres said at the time that Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic “carried a flag of friendship across the world and represented our country in an unbelievable manner. Music conducted by you became a message for peace, a message of hope.”
In accepting the award, Mehta said, “What Israel has given me in the last 50 years I can only give back by having my musicians night after night play their hearts out all over the world.”
In addition to co-chairing the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation in Bombay with his brother, Mehta was a founder of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music in Tel Aviv, which develops young talent in Israel. According to his website, he is also involved in a new project of teaching young Arab Israelis in the cities of Shwaram and Nazareth with local teachers and members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Among Mehta’s more unusual claims to fame is that he is mentioned in the lyric of Frank Zappa’s 1972 song “Billy The Mountain.”