Letting the music speak

music September 07, 2018 01:00


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In what will probably be his last performance in Asia, maestro Zubin Mehta conducts Naples’ San Carlo Orchestra

Leading conductor Zubin Mehta makes a welcome return to Thailand this month, taking part in the 20th anniversary celebrations of Bangkok’s International Festival of Dance & Music. He will wield the baton for the opera “Carmen” on Wednesday night and again on September 14 by the San Carlo Opera House from Naples, as well as two symphony concerts by the San Carlo Orchestra: An Evening with Beethoven on Thursday, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies on September 15. 

Zubin Mehta was just 15 when he first conducted a rehearsal for a concert by the Bombay Symphony Orchestra to the backing track of his father Mehli Mehta, the founder of the orchestra yelling instructions at him. Terrified, he followed instructions and led the orchestra. The orchestra was practising for a concert with Yehudi Menuhin and while Mehli played Menuhin’s solo part on the violin, Zubin substituted at the podium.


Today, that terrified teenager is the most sought after conductor in the world with a career that has seen him heading some of the western world’s leading orchestras. 

Now in his 80s, the maestro is planning on easing up on his punishing performance schedule and these four performances might well be the last time Bangkok, or for that matter Asia, gets to see him. 

Eight years from that fateful day on the podium in Bombay, he had transformed from a terrified student to a conductor of heft – he was appointed Principal Conductor and Music Director of the Montreal Philharmonic and a year later Music Director of Los Angeles Philharmonic, a post he retained until 1978. 


In between, he abandoned a career in medicine to attend the Academy of Music in Vienna. Seven years later, he conducted both the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics. Of his Vienna sojourn he said, “Vienna taught me my whole concept of music sound, it taught me classical music.” Ever faithful to the city, the conductor has returned every year since 1961 to conduct. And in 2009, he took the Vienna Philharmonic to Mumbai.

In 1978, Mehta took over as music director of the New York Philharmonic a tenure that was to last an astonishing 13 years. In 1985, Italy beckoned: he was appointed chief conductor of the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence; a position he retained until last year.

For Mehta, an attribute a conductor must possess is knowledge. In his biography “Conducting – A Labour of Love”, he declares this to be knowledge of at least 400 years of the various styles of music he is conducting; knowledge of musical forms, knowledge of the orchestra as an instrument. He must also possess the skill of communicating his knowledge to the musicians standing before him. The art of conducting for him is about inspiring, but not without necessary discipline. However, he sees the image of a conductor as a dictator as false. Those days he says are over, “I will always be available to my musicians for a talk”. 

Perhaps why musicians flock to him. In 2016, Teatro di San Carlo in Naples appointed the charismatic conductor as its Honorary Music Director, writing another chapter in the theatre’s long history. Through the centuries of its existence Teatro di San Carlo, the guardian of Neapolitan tradition, has associated itself with leading musicians, conductors, singers and directors, among them Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Placido Domingo,  Jose Carreras, Niccolo Paganini, Mstislav Rostropovica, Sviatoslav Richter, and Yo-Yo Ma. 

In line with that tradition, the opera house brings to Bangkok the leading opera singers in the world today.

Georges Bizet’s fouract “Carmen” stars tenor Saimir Pirgu as Don Jose, mezzo soprano Veronica Simeoni as Carmen, baritone Vito Priante as Escamillo, baritone Enrico Maria Marabelli as Morales, Soprano Federica Lombardi as Micaela, baritone Fabio Previati as Doncairo. 

The San Carlo Orchestra, under Zubin Mehta’s direction will take on Beethoven on September 13 (Leonore Overture No 3; Symphony No 9 with chorus and singers), and on September 15 Tchaikovsky (Symphony No 4; Symphony No 6).

He conducts from memory and is famous for his “visually arresting style”. As he says, “It all comes from the music. I do as it demands”.

The festival is made possible with the support of Crown Property Bureau, Bangkok Bank (PCL), Bangkok Dusit Medical Services (PCL), BMW Thailand, B Grimm Group, Dusit Thani Bangkok, Indorama Ventures, Ministry of Culture, Nation Group, Major Cineplex, PTT (PCL), Singha Corporation, Thai Union Group, Thai Airways International, Tourism Authority of Thailand, and True Corporation PCL.


- Tickets are now on sale at Thai Ticket Major counters, online at www.ThaiTicketMajor.com, and by calling the hotline at (02) 262 3191.  

- The venue is at Main Hall, Thailand Cultural Centre, Bangkok

- For more information, visit www.BangkokFestivals.com.