The hottest hand in music
The hand belongs to Zubin Mehta, a flamboyant young Parsee who conducts two of North America’s best symphony orchestras. Here is how he’s turning one of them — Mont real’s — into the city’s most exciting reason for digging culture
THE CLIMAX of Respighi's Pines of Rome calls for full symphony orchestra plus a whole platoon of extra brass; under inept attack it goes well
beyond an acoustic experience to a bone-buzzing physical one. But on a warm evening last fall the Montreal Symphony Orchestra sailed through it with such suave power that one customer. making his way out of Montreal's new Place des Arts, stopped in the lobby, glanced back towards the auditorium and said to his companion. "That last pine. Wow!”
His exhilaration will be unsurprising to those C anadians who have been keeping track of the music news: after a quarter century as just another civic orchestra the MSO. in the last couple of years, has started coming on as a real swinging group. It's getting the kind of unstinting notices that Canadian music critics almost never give the local band. "Simply magnificent.”
wrote Thomas Archer in the Montreal Gazette after a recent performance of Verdi s Requiem Mass Manzoni. "An occasion that happened once and may never happen again." Its houses are sellouts. Indeed there are enough names on the waiting list for the regular subscription series to fill out another subscription series. When three special performances of Verdi’s Othello were announced for this February every ticket was snapped up in two days. Alone among Canadian orchestras the MSO has been certified suitable lor cultural export, having gone to the USSR in I‘)h2 as the official swap for the Red Army chorus. The Russian tour was a triumph. On the way hack the group then braved Vienna, traditional home of the toughcontinued overleaf
Every concert is a battle between conductor and musician
Up till then the orchestra's fastidious managing director. Pierre Béique. had openly been calling it "second-rate." It was not only not in the same class as the ranking North American orchestras, those of Boston. Philadelphia, Cleveland, New York and Chicago, but it was not even clearly the best in Canada: it was ranked ahead of the Winnipeg and Vancouver Symphonies, about even with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and somewhat behind the now-defunct CBC Symphony. But that night in Vienna, and increasingly since, the MSO has seemed uncannily able to transcend its natural ability and station in life. "We can be bad." admits Calvin Sieh, the concertmaster. "but we can reach heights." Béique is
est concert audiences in Europe: its performance won a twenty-minute ovation, fourteen curtain calls, two encores and a public assurance from the music critic of Die Presse that it was "a first-rate ensemble."
equally conscious of the new phenomenon: “Take the Verdi Requiem." he mused not long ago. "I think the musicians even awed themselves."
What has overtaken the MSO is not epiphany but a nomadic twentyeight-year-old Parsec named Zubin Mehta, who became its first permanent conductor in 1961. Mehta, a new-style jet-set conductor, is also resident director of the Eos Angeles Philharmonic and spends the winter concert season commuting by plane between Montreal and Eos Angeles (with guest conductors spelling him in both cities to make it possible); in the summers he embarks on a pointto-point that takes in most of the major international music festivals and is so much in demand that this year, for example, he is having to hold his rehearsals in June for the Monte Carlo Festival in August.
Mehta is perhaps the hottest young conductor on the current musical scene, which is saying quite a bit. Five
major conducting schools on two con tinents grant some hundred and fifty diplomas a year to debutant conduc tors, but in a whole generation then are seldom more than half a dozet authentic stars — men with the icy musical conviction of, say, a Wilhelnj Furtwängler, plus the mesmeric autft ority of a Toscanini and the crowd, appeal of a Leonard Bernstein (th box-office has to be considered).; Among Mehta's contemporaries sorm five other conductors are held to bí comers, including the twenty-eight! year-old Japanese, Seiji Ozawa, whç will take over the Toronto Symphony! Orchestra in 1965. But it is Mehti who has been hailed as another Furl* wängler (in Vienna): as another To$? canini (in New York): as another Leonard Bernstein (in Berlin). Ir Moscow the brilliant young Soviel conductor Kiril Kondrashin — alsty one of the five — himself callet Mehta, "probably the best conducto alive today."
Mehta says he hasn't yet met an orchestra that he can't break
Though the MSO was Mehta's first orchestra of his own, he was already internationally famous as a conducting prodigy in 1961. In bagging him as its resident conductor, then, the MSO bagged itself a rising international star — and bagging a star, as any culturally hip Canadian knows, is the proven specific for putting a Canadian cultural institution into orbit. What is happening to the thirty-yearold MSO. that is to say. is very like what happened to the Stratford Festival when it hired Sir Tony Guthrie or to the National Film Board, earlier, when it imported John Grierson.
To statt with, of course, a star like Mehta -— or Sir Tony or Grierson — lends his prior prestige to the enterprise. such prestige being conferrable. for a time at least. The MSO was invited to perform in Vienna, for example. on the strength of Mehtas stunning personal success, a year earlier, ¿s guest conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic.
The orchestra has also benefited right along from what might be called Mehta's personal glamour. Member of a race driven from ancient Persia to settle in India, he has the swarthy good looks of a young shah along w ith what one Canadienne reporter was pleased to call un charme brutal. At the domestic level this circumstance is useful in inspiring matrons of the MSO women's committee, who are the chief fund-raisers for the orchestra. In a more general way Mehta has precisely that star personality that keeps potential customers interested and curious. He is part peacock, part princeling and part brat, and in addition is usually outspoken.
He has enough temperament to make scenes in restaurants over the right to prepare his own shrimp-cocktail sauce, and enough mischief to go and pose as a pageboy in an out-oftown theatre so he can carry flowers onstage in person to a diva of his acquaintance. He says things in public
like. "I much prefer when the ladies collect money for my orchestra because no lady has the guts to tell me what to do." or "North America can't breed good conductors: North American men can't dominate one woman, let alone ninety men." He recently listed his three favorite concert halls as being in Toronto. Boston and Chicago. specifically slighting the ninemillion-dollar Grande Salle of the Place (.les Arts, which is the MSO's new home: "1 only regret that l a Grande Salle isn't nearly as good.” he said disdainfully. This piqued Montreal music-lovers, and others, no end and was therefore, of course, excellent publicity for the MSO's next concert series.
He puts on a good performance inside the concert hall too. As a conductor Mehta belongs to the evangelical rather than the cataleptic or pugilistic school: he looms over his orchestra. feet planted sturdily, arms upraised in exhortation, summoning.
quelling, stabbing, the conductor's characteristic thick pad of muscle bunching across his shoulders. He looks well in evening clothes.
In tact it's easy to start thinking of Mehta as the whole show. An MSO concert season inevitably reflects Mehta's own repertoire and musical tastes, which run to the old fortifying German classics and the German moderns. Particular MSO performances are criticized for Mehta's own stvlistic excesses or crotchets, which are held to include "a tendency to smudge the louder passages" (according to an Austrian critic); "emotional vulgaritv" (according to a Montreal composer): and "impossible tempi" (according to a soloist who has tried more than once lo cope), ( ertainh Mehta is capable of moving the proceedings right along: a 1 os Angeles Philharmonic employee who had clocked them both reported not long ago that Mehta got the orchestra through the Bruckner Seventh Symphony a full continued overleaf
n "evangelist" on the podium, Mehta exhorts, wheedles and coaxes music from his Montreal orchestra
quarter-hour faster than had the late Eduard van Beinum, the Dutch maestro.
In one sense Mehta is the whole show, for the relationship of conductor to orchestra is really that of soloist to his instrument and in taking on the MSO Mehta has been like a musician buying his own first piano, the best he can afford at the time, and tuning it as well as possible so he can perform on it according to his own lights. Tuning the instrument — a process otherwise known as “building an orchestra" — is a matter of sorting and pruning the orchestral ranks, getting the musicians to compromise their individual playing styles, juggling seating arrangements and listening with constant vigilance for any maverick sound: “I take my stethoscope in
every rehearsal," says Mehta darkly. He has now tuned the MSO to his favorite tone, which he calls “the Viennese blend” and describes as “warm" “dark" and “baritone" as distinct from “the brilliant showy American sound" and “the thin, intense, but sort-of-sexless French sound.” He is so jealous ol his well-tempered instrument that he hates to put it at anyone elsc's service and constantly rails against his musicians for moonlighting for the CBC. “When they come back for rehearsal the next morning I have to brainwash them all over again," he says bitterly. “1 want my boys to play only for me."
The undertones of clash in this remark are not misleading, for an orchestra, of course, is not an inanimate instrument and Mehta in this sense is only half the show. The other half is an assembly of ninety-odd men and women of prima-donna temperament, varying musical ability and tastes and an initial attitude toward any conductor of suspicion and sullenness if not contempt. “We like to rattle a new conductor," says one of them coolly. “For instance, you can play without keeping your eyes on him: conductors can't bear that.” In pre-Mehta days, musicians in the rear ranks of the MSO used to bring portable radios to a concert, set them in the wings and tilt their chairs back just far enough while performing to listen to a hockey game. One member even
used to boast that somewhere in every concert he could desert the score and, without the conductor’s noticing, play a full chorus of Mary Had a Little Lamb. It is significant that from the start no MSO musician dared try such overt check with Mehta, but he is nevertheless their unacknowledged — and occasionally acknow ledged — adversary. Every rehearsal, every concert is a battle of wills: his soloist's creative rage pitted against the instrument's inertia or resistance: his inner conception of the music pitted against the group's ingrained habits: his will to hear the prized Viennese tone pitted against ninety musicians’ assorted backgrounds and tastes. “I know just how they feel about that s.o.b. on top," grins Mehta. ( During his student days in Vienna Mehta headed the percussion section of an orchestra and once, called to start a televised concert with a roll of drums, he deliberately ignored the conductor's downbeat long enough for the snub to be publicly unmistakable.)
But even at odds of ninetv-to-one Mehta is not overmatched — he once said, "I can't think of an orchestra I haven't broken down" — and the musicians know it. In April 1963, there were rumors that Mehta was going to leave. The MSO musicians promptly and unanimously signed a petition that he stay. Some of them, fighting every step of the way, still mutter that they signed only because his rumored successor w'as a man they knew' to be a real martinet; nevertheless the unanimous petition read in part. “We believe that under his leadership the Montreal Symphony Orchestra will grow into one of the w'orld's great orchestras."
They are tied to him in that curious, classic, conductor - musician relationship that was once summed up by a Chicago violinist when he said of maestro Fritz Reiner, “I hate his guts — but he can make me play better than I think I can." Out of just this charged atmosphere of skirmish — an atmosphere significantly like that of a Guthrie rehearsal or a National Film Board conference in Grierson's day — somehow comes heightened performance. Consequently there is as much
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The MSO’s greatest triumph: the night they won an ovation from the world’s toughest audience
dependence in the MSO's relationship to Mehta as there is necessary hostility. They lean not only upon his energy and musicianship hut upon his sell-possession. “Zubin doesn’t flap.” says his younger brother Zarin, a Montreal chartered accountant. And indeed, when a cello soloist once lost his nerve in a Lalo concerto and whispered that he couldn’t go on. Mehta merely whispered back, "Pretend a string has slipped.” Fiddling with the string gave the cellist time to collect himself anil Mehta's calm assumption that time was all he needed spurred him to a fresh attack on the music.
Behind such unflappability is a perfect confidence that at times seems almost mystical: Mehta, who as a
Parsec is a Zoroastrian. once told a friend that when he boards a plane he sometimes looks around the cabin and thinks to himself. "Lucky people. I’m aboard so this plane will get there.”
In the opinion of at least one musician. it was Mehta's confidence alone that carried the MSO through the European tour less than a year after Mehta joined them as conductor. "We’il never have had the nerve without him,” says Marie l.orcini, the orchestra's solo harpist. “He just didn’t seem worried.”
The Vienna concert was their biggest test. Pierre Béique, the managing director, explains, "You can imagine a group of a hundred Montrealers, many of whom had never traveled much, certainly not to Europe. In the USSR we had not been so nervous. But Vienna is the capital of Western music. For a second-rate orchestra such a city is quite a dare." Béique asked Mehta resentfully at the time, "Why did we come to Vienna?"
Afterwards Eric McLean, the Montreal Star's music critic, who had accompanied the group, wrote back. "They played better than Montreal has ever heard them.”
Mehta stung not only prodigies of performance from the orchestra as a whole but a remarkable exhibition of automatism from Joseph Mascha, the solo horn player. The Viennese ovation was prolonged and noisy enough to require an encore so Mehta finally signaled for Weber's Oheron Overture. which contains an important solo horn passage. Mehta had told the men not to expect encores in Vienna, and Mascha had therefore felt free to take a post-concert chalk pill for a stomach ulcer. Though blowing a horn with a chalky mouth is rather worse than trying to whistle while sucking lemon. M a s e I I a somehow managed, on Mehta's downbeat, to produce a belllike tone through the whole passage.
A second-rank orchestra that outdoes itself is not quite the same thing, of course, as an absolutely first-rank orchestra, though there is no reason win it should not become one given time, continued morale, community support and a growing pool of outstanding local musicians to choose from. Montreal music-lovers, includ-
ing his own musicians, believe Mehta could wrestle the MSO right to the top if he stayed around. But they know that Mehta, who says "I did not have such good material to work with at the beginning.” and still cautiously awards the MSO only "best in Canada.” is just the man to keep shopping for bigger, grander, better-class instruments to tune to his purposes. He is. as managing director Béique says, "a young man in a hurry.”
He has not always been so noticeably in a hurry. Born in April 1936. in Bombay, the son of a Parsec chartered accountant turned violinist and orchestra conductor. Mehta was not aggressively musical as a youth. He was sport-loving, extroverted and energetic but, recalls his brother Zarin with some conviction. "He was no Mozart.” (Zarin followed his older brother to Canada just over a year ago. Their father and mother had moved to the U. S. in 1959. where Mehta senior is on the faculty of the New School of Music in Philadelphia.) Nevertheless from the moment he abandoned a pre-medical course at seventeen to go to the State Academy of Music in Vienna his rise was spectacular, and fast. Mehta, who insists that "the talent for conducting is born in you." was graduated with his diploma in conducting in 1957 at the age of twenty-one and in just three years of guest appearances built a worldwide reputation as a conducting prodigy. It was as a guest conductor that he first came to Montreal, in September I960.
The MSO, which had been on a professional basis only since 1958, promptly asked him to become its first resident director and Mehta, thus offered his first orchestra to build, as promptly accepted.
He was equally prompt in accepting the post of permanent conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic when it was offered him not long afterwards. It meant an intricate shuttle-run between the two cities and a winter schedule of almost eighty concerts, all told, to rehearse and conduct. But the Los Angeles Philharmonic was a bigger and richer orchestra with. Mehta has implied, better "material” to work with than the MSO. Mehta was not the man to turn it down. Nor is he the man to resist pointing out that he is the only conductor with two North American orchestras either.
Mehta lives in hotels in both cities. He has recently separated from his wife. C armen Lasky Mehta, a singer from Wakaw. Saskatchewan, whom he married in Europe and by whom he has two small children. Mehta sees a few intimate friends but says firmly, "I don’t socialize." He neither drinks nor smokes, but is an exuberant addict of Cirade-B Hollywood movies, melted chocolate ice cream, his own shrimpcocktail sauce, Indian curries and the kind of ingenuous foolery that consists in pretending he is telephoning the Montreal Symphony office from Los Angeles when he is really only ten minutes aw'ay. He is. after all. only twenty-eight. ★