One of the best-known conductors of the last quarter of the 20th century, Zubin Mehta is known for his flamboyant, passionate style on the podium. A conductor of the New York Philharmonic and Israel Philharmonic Orchestras for many years, he has appeared with orchestras all over the world and has sought to use classical music as a force for peace in troubled regions.
Mehta was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), in British-controlled India, on April 29, 1936. His first language was Gujarati, and the family adhered to the Parsi religion. His father, Mehli Mehta, was a violinist and conductor who co-founded the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. Part of the key to Zubin's later confidence and success as a conductor is that he began very early; his father taught him to play violin and piano and to conduct, and from his early teens, he was leading sectional rehearsals with the Bombay Symphony; he took rehearsals with the entire ensemble at 16. Mehta's mother wanted him to study medicine, and he enrolled at St. Xavier's College, Bombay, with that aim, but after two years, he dropped out and moved to Vienna, Austria. Living on a shoestring, he took conducting lessons from Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy of Music and learned the double bass so he could find orchestral work. After winning a contest, he received a one-year appointment as the assistant conductor with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. This led to prestigious guest conducting posts with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra and then, in 1960 and 1962, respectively, to music director posts with the Montreal Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. For the former post, he had help from Charles Munch, whom he had impressed at a contest at the Tanglewood Music Festival. The jet-setting conductor who holds posts in far-flung cities has become commonplace, but Mehta was one of the first whose career followed the pattern. He built the Los Angeles Philharmonic into one of the major U.S. orchestras.
Mehta resigned his Montreal post in 1967, beginning a long association with the Israel Philharmonic that came to an end only in 2017. He left the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1978, succeeding Pierre Boulez as the music director of the New York Philharmonic. He remained in New York until 1991. Mehta also became the music director of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, entering into the musical life of Florence and later becoming an honorary citizen of that city. The tendency to engage with an orchestra's surroundings rather than simply flying in to conduct could be seen especially clearly in his work with the Israel Philharmonic, which he conducted during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the 1982 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon (where he conducted for both Israeli and Arab audiences, with the latter receiving him enthusiastically), and the 1991 Gulf War.
Conducting the internationally televised Three Tenors concerts featuring Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, and José Carreras, Mehta gained wide public exposure for his outsized style, perfectly suited to these concerts. After leaving his New York Philharmonic post, Mehta assumed the music directorship of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich in 1998, remaining in that post until 2006. He also became the music director of the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, Spain, in 2005. During the 1990s and 2000s, Mehta took the opportunity to conduct orchestras and operas in large, one-of-a-kind events. In 1992, he conducted a performance of Puccini's opera Tosca, starring Domingo as Cavaradossi, at the actual places specified in the score in real time. Mehta conducted a similar production of Puccini's Turandot in China in 1998, directed by filmmaker Zhang Yimou with 300 soldiers and 300 extras.
Mehta's recording catalog is one of the most extensive of any contemporary conductor's, comprising well over 200 albums and beginning with a 1973 recording of Tosca, starring Leontyne Price and recorded for RCA. His output focuses on Romantic orchestral repertory, most often from the second half of the 19th century, but encompasses a startling variety of music, from early American composer John Knowles Paine to Schoenberg, to opera and film soundtracks (he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Frank Zappa's film 200 Motels in 1971), to Vienna's Summer Night and New Year's concerts. He has rarely recorded contemporary music. Mehta remained active into old age, releasing a new recording of Haydn's oratorio Die Schöpfung, Hob. 21/2, with the Munich Philharmonic in 2021, when he was 85.
© James Manheim /TiVo