Music

The Mehta mystique

Rita Christopher May 21 1979
Music

The Mehta mystique

Rita Christopher May 21 1979

The Mehta mystique

Music

Rita Christopher

Don’t call him Zubi-baby. Indian-born maestro Zubin Mehta says that is pure journalistic invention. And don’t remind him about the billboard in Los Angeles displaying his swarthy good looks like a shaving cream ad. He had no part in that extravaganza. Nor does he claim any responsibility for the exotic Eastern getup that ushers at Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion sported to herald his presence. Or the larger-than-life portrait that hung prominently in the building’s entrance hall. “Some people think I was behind these things and that creates totally the wrong impression. I had nothing to do with them,” protests Zubin Mehta, late of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, now finishing his first triumphant season as conductor of the New York Philharmonic. And his contract was just renewed to 1986.

But don’t get the mistaken idea that Zubin Mehta doesn’t know how to make an impression. Besieged by autograph hounds in the Soviet Union, he bellowed “Revolt.” At the news of both the SixDay War and the Yom Kippur War, he immediately flew to Israel to conduct morale-boosting concerts with the Israel Philharmonic, with which he has been associated for 17 years. And in Los Angeles he made news with his Star Wars concerts from the Hollywood Bowl, galas that featured not only the

orchestra but Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, with circling laser beams adding a final touch. Photographers have caught him nude in a sauna and upside down in a yoga headstand. Zubin Mehta, 43, is a superstar, doing for classical music what Pete Rose does for baseball and Mick Jagger does for rock.

The announcement three years ago that he would leave Los Angeles for New York started a media blitz. Public Broadcasting televised his farewell concert in Los Angeles. In his first season at Lincoln Center, he has appeared on three live broadcasts, including a performance where the heavily perspiring conductor was interviewed by VicePresident Mondale’s wife Joan at intermission. “If you look at the man, that face, the radiance of those eyes, he comes across sensationally. He’s terribly exciting on television, just musically very, very sexy,” says Public Broadcasting’s Joe McKaughan.

But Mehta’s presence at the New York Philharmonic is doing more than making hormone juices flow. The Philharmonic’s ticket sales are up from 85 per cent to nearly 100 per cent. And, in New York, where it has to compete with the best orchestras from America and abroad on tour, to say nothing of Broadway, that kind of box-office power is impact—exactly the kind of impact that Mehta’s predecessor, French composer-conductor Pierre Boulez was

never able to make on New York audiences. “Sometimes personality will bring people in,” Mehta admits. “It’s just a gimmick though. In the long run, people come for the music.”

Mehta’s skill at making headlines is surpassed only by his skill at making music. Though surrounded by the subtle tonalities of the East, he grew up in a home where Western music reigned supreme. His family was a member of India’s Parsi community, descendants of Persians who had migrated to India more than a thousand years earlier, and had become among the most Westernized elements of traditional Indian society. Zubin’s father, Mehli, founded the Bombay Symphony Orchestra, an assemblage that Zubin had already conducted by the age of 16. Despite his musical precocity, the family had decided on a medical career, a plan Mehta quickly put an end to by tossing a dogfish he was required to dissect across the classroom. That settled the matter: he was dispatched to Vienna to study conducting. In addition to an enduring passion for the rich sound of the Vienna Philharmonic, he developed one as well for chocolate ice cream. “Der Inder,” as the Viennese called him, could stash away an entire kilo at one sitting.

Food and music were not the only passions in his Viennese days. Mehta married a fellow student, Canadian soprano Carmen Lasky. A daughter, Zarina, and a son, Merwan, were born in the next three years, but Mehta’s personal and professional lives made radically different demands on him. (Zubin divorced in 1962. Zubin’s brother Zarin, executive vice-president of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, married Zubin’s ex-wife in 1966. “I dunno, it just happened,” explained Zarin. “Here I am

Mehta: all that glamor-boy stuff

taking care of his children as well as our own.” Zarin now characterizes his relationship with Zubin as “warm.”)

Mehta launched his career by winning a conducting competition in Liverpool, England. He was hired in 1961 to be the musical director of the Montreal Symphony, his first plum assignment. Mehta remained for only a year. What lured him from Canada was an invitation to become associate musical director in Los Angeles. It embroiled him immediately in controversy. Conductor Georg Solti, who favored Mehta’s selection, had not been informed of the appointment, and, piqued, he resigned. Quite by chance, Mehta found himself, at 25, musical director. He plunged with enthusiasm not only into the task of upgrading the orchestra but exploring the delights of the Golden West. His penchant for fast cars and beautiful women landed him in the gossip columns almost as often as the music reviews. After a long-distance liaison with Canadian soprano Teresa Stratas, he married actress Nancy Kovack, a statuesque blonde.

Pride in his Los Angeles orchestra and natural imperiousness conspired to remove him from the running for the top job at the New York Philharmonic when Leonard Bernstein stepped down in 1967. Asked about rumors he would move to New York, Mehta blurted out, “My orchestra is better than the New York Philharmonic. We play better than they do. Artistically it would not be a step up for me.” For good measure, he threw in another zinger: the New York Philharmonic, he claimed, “steps over conductors... a lot of us think ‘why not send our worst enemy to the New York Philharmonic and finish him off once and for all?’ ”

After an outcry by the Philharmonic musicians’ union, Mehta appeared before them to explain his remarks. Enough ill will persisted for management to cancel his upcoming guest conductor dates. When, after 11 years, Mehta did make a guest appearance, he apologized to the orchestra and today no traces of the former bitterness appear when the instrumentalists talk about their new maestro. Mehta, naturally enough, also sings a different tune about his New York orchestra these days. “They are fantastic,” he says. “You rehearse something today and by next week they are ready to record it.”

He is not, however, without his critics. Los Angeles Times reviewer Martin Bernheimer, who has complained that Mehta’s renditions of Bach “might just as well be Bachmaninoff,” says, “I know I’ve been cast to some extent in the role of a Mehta antagonist but my criticism hasn’t been directed at his interpreta-

tions of the big romantic pieces. I have maintained that in smaller scale works, his conducting can be muscular and insensitive.” Mehta, a man who does not suffer criticism lightly, dismissed Bernheimer as “Mr. Whoever in Los Angeles,” adding with an imperious wave of the hand, “I am not sensitive to critics.”

Nancy Mehta’s criticism is that their only private moments come with a habitual backgammon game played between 1:00 and 2:30 in the morning. Much of her first year in New York has been spent searching for more suitable living quarters than their small hotel suite, with Zubin’s tails tossed over a chair, and a large basket of the hot red peppers he stuffs in his pockets to season food to its requisite spiciness resting on a table near the door. The Mehtas will keep their sumptuous Los Angeles villa which once belonged to actor Steve McQueen. “Los Angeles is still home,” says Mehta, but they have just bought a townhouse on New York’s fashionable East Side. A wealthy man and a famous one. In Los Angeles, his yearly salary was reported to be $250,000, but he brushes aside all money questions.

Relaxing in baggy grey trousers and a grey turtleneck after a rehearsal, Mehta seems a smaller and far less commanding person than he does on the podium. He switches from English to German on a transatlantic telephone call as he juggles concert dates five years in the future. Putting his hand over the receiver, he switches to Yiddish as he directs his close friend conductorpianist Daniel Barenboim to a midtown health club. Mehta and Barenboim, along with violinists Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zukerman and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy have formed such a close personal and professional circle they are known as the “kosher nostra.” Mehta’s membership in the group is more than honorary: he donned a yarmulke and masqueraded as an Orthodox Jew at Barenboim’s wedding. “Shmoozing with my friends, that’s what I really like,” he says. “Where would I get the time to run around to parties? I don’t like that fan magazine image, all that glamor-boy stuff.”

If he’s tired of his Hollywood image, his fans most assuredly are not. One of them, Marion Javits, wife of New York’s senior senator, has conceived the perfect plan to keep Mehta on public display. Fascinated by holography, the process of making three-dimensional pictures, Javits has come up with the perfect scheme to enshrine the experimental art form along with her favorite conductor—a full-length holographic portrait of Mehta to be hung—where else?—in Avery Fisher Hall, home of the New York Philharmonic. By far a tonier version of stars’ footprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.