Zubin Mehta, the storied music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra who stepped down from his position this week with a final concert, told Channel 12 news in an interview that aired Friday that one of his chief regrets was that “I have not taken the orchestra to any Arab country.”
The 83-year-old Mehta, who has conducted the IPO since 1961 and has been its music director since 1977 — as well as working with leading orchestras the world over — was born in India to a violinist father and said he was inducted into the musical world at an early age.
His father, Mehli Mehta, formed the Bombay Symphony Orchestra, whose strings section was mostly manned by Jewish musicians who had fled the Holocaust in Europe.
He said he got his first taste of conducting when “I was 16 years old and my father was preparing the orchestra to accompany [Jewish violinist] Yehudi Menuhin.
“So my father, being a violinist, knew these concertos. So he would play and I would conduct so that the orchestra would get to know the solo part. Actually I had no idea what I was doing. But I knew the music very well, and I followed him and he would play and shout at me what I’m doing wrong,” he said with a laugh.
Despite being with the IPO for nearly 60 years, Mehta told attendants of his final concert at Tel Aviv’s Charles Bronfman Auditorium that one of the dreams he had failed to achieve was to learn Hebrew: “Slicha, be’emet slicha!” he said. (“Sorry, truly sorry!”)
However, he does appear to have picked up a few words — and some Yiddishkeit (Judaism) — along the way. At a gala honoring him at Tel Aviv’s Hilton hotel this week, he told the audience: “I’ll say one word about all this publicity and thanks to me: Maspik [enough]!”
And asked by Channel 12’s reporter how, at 83, he was still so active professionally, he answered: “Koykhes,” (Yiddish for “strength”) adding, “I have a lot of it.”
The charismatic maestro has conducted in poignant settings, including when he led a group of Israeli and German musicians near the site of the Nazis’ Buchenwald concentration camp in 1999, where he also conducted Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.
He also famously rushed to Israel to perform in support of the country during the 1967 Six Day War, though he would later say he opposed the settlement building that followed in the West Bank.
Mehta said one of the most special moments for him as the orchestra’s conductor was “when I stepped on the stage in Bombay [now Mumbai] with the orchestra. Because India broke off relations with Israel after the Six Day War and in 1991 it was resumed again and I was very happy. And in 1993 or 1994 we went to India and when I stepped on the stage with the orchestra I was very proud.”
At Sunday’s Tel Aviv concert, Mehta, who underwent treatment for a cancerous tumor last year and walked with a cane, earned a long standing ovation from the packed house as he said “goodbye to my family.”
His official biography says that during his tenure, “Mehta has conducted over 3,000 concerts with this extraordinary ensemble including tours spanning five continents.”
The final performance included Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, known as Resurrection, at the Mediterranean city’s Charles Bronfman Auditorium.
“From my heart, what this orchestra has given me… not only this one but all the generations before them. I cannot begin to even describe what I have learned with these musicians,” he told the audience during the intermission.
Though he has retired from his position as music director of the IPO, Mehta apparently has no plans of kicking back.
“My calendar is full till 2022,” he told Channel 12, explaining that his love for his work keeps him going. He said he can only hope for “more years of beautiful music. That’s what I am and that’s what I want.”
AFP contributed to this report