Zubin Mehta’s enduring ode to joy

music September 11, 2018 01:00

By Kupluthai Pungkanon
The Nation

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The most celebrated conductor of our time curtailed a planned world tour, but has not denied Bangkok

At 82, Zubin Mehta – a living legend to devotees of the classics and phil¬harmonic performance – remains as passionate about guiding orchestras through their charts as he was at 25.  He always looks forward to the next concert, he says, and, to the great for¬tune of his fans in Thailand, his next series of concerts is taking place in Bangkok tomorrow through Saturday.

The shows at the Thailand Cultural Centre will add considerable appeal and lustre to the ongoing International Festival Dance and Music, with the great Indian conduc¬tor bringing the Georges Bizet opera “Carmen” and popular selections from Beethoven and Tchaikovsky to the proceedings. 

Already in the capital last week¬end, Mehta told The Nation that the Bangkok appearance was especially important to him because, for health reasons, he’s had to cancel a planned world tour this year and is only able to perform here and in France. 

It certainly makes the occasion special for local admirers – a chance to hear one of the great stars of classi¬cal music interpret “Ode to Joy”, lead¬ing the renowned San Carlo Opera and San Carlo Orchestra from Naples, Italy. 

Excerpts from the interview: 

This is only your second visit to Thailand since you last performed here five years ago?

No, I’ve been here many times. The first time was in 1984, with the New York Philharmonic. We did a free concert for refugees and your princess came to the concert. This hotel [the Mandarin Oriental] is like my home! 

I also came with the Israel Philharmonic, at least three times. We have never forgotten the concert that JS Uberoi [chairman of International Cultural Promotions Ltd] organised in front of the Grand Palace five years ago.  It was quite unbelievable – the whole stage was filled with flowers and there were airconditioners under the seating! 

Mr Uberoi is Indian but a great friend of Thailand. I wanted to do that concert for his adopted country. So I come whenever he invites me. 

Tell us about the programme this time.

We’re doing two performances of “Carmen” with the opera singers. Then we are doing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the “Choral”, and Overture No 3, “Leonore”, at two shows, and at the other Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony in F minor and Sixth Symphony in B minor – the “Pathétique”.


I spent a week in Naples rehears¬ing and we worked very hard, so we are prepared. We only have to get used to the theatre here now. 

Share with us your deepest feelings about Beethoven, whose music you’ve played so often.

The Ninth is a symphony that belongs to the world, with the lyric that Beethoven adopted by Friedrich Schiller, the great German poet – “All people are brothers.” 

Everybody should read these words. He believed these words and we need this today, you know that. People should take it very seriously, the words of this symphony. 

You’ve often said your father, Mehli Mehta, was your greatest inspiration. What exactly did you learn from him?

My father was a great disciplinarian, very strict. He conducted in Bombay, played many concerts on violin and then with his youth orchestra in California. He trained musicians that are today in most of the great American orchestras. And they got their discipline from him and I got it too, which is very important in music. We don’t improvise. 

This is a very good orchestra from Naples. We played the Ninth last year in the huge cathedral in Milan, in front of 5,000 people. 

You conducted an imaginary orchestra when you were five years old, and now you’re still travelling the world conducting many great orchestras. Who do you thank for this?

First of all, my father: He had a big collection of recordings of Toscanini that I grew up listening to. 

Then I went to Vienna to study with Hans Swarowsky, who was also great disciplinarian. And I started to play in orchestras. I started quite early professionally. I was 25 when I got my first jobs, in Montreal and in Los Angeles at the same time. 

It just happened. I didn’t ask for it. There in these two cities, I learned repertoire – all the pieces I had in my head. So I learned much from that. 

What do you hear when you close your eyes?

Only the music. The message of the composer is very important, whether I do Mozart or Beethoven or the later composers. We have to analyse the music. We have to look at what the masters intended and read between the lines. We have to know their styles and imagine, given our knowledge, what Beethoven intend¬ed in his music, and Mozart the same. Haydn was another great master.

What would you say about Stravinsky? 

I started with Stravinsky, very early in my life. When I go to Naples I’ll do “The Rite of Spring” with this orchestra. We’ll also be celebrating the birth centennial of Leonard Bernstein, who was the great 20thcentury musician. 

Does popular music affect your perception of music in general? 

No. I always appreciate jazz. I don’t play it, but I appreciate it. As a student in Vienna, I liked listening to Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie. In Los Angeles I knew some of them, as well. 

And of course another great inspi¬ration was Ravi Shankar, a great musician of the last century – and now his daughter Anoushka plays with me! Next year will be the 100th anniversary of Ravi Shankar’s birth and we’ll celebrate in London, with his music played by her. I’m still very close to the family. 

The great Indian tabla player Shakil Hussain will also come to Florence to play with me. His father used to play with Ravi Shankar. 

You were an Asian pioneer in Western classical music. What do you think of today’s young Asian musicians? 

Asian music is developing and evolving very well. For Asians to become conductors, they have to study. Nothing happens by itself. 

Anybody who wants to be a pro¬fessional in classical music has to work hard. They have to go to Europe or America and study. Without studying, nothing will happen. Through study, you get the opportu¬nities. Vienna, London and New York are very good places to study, with very good teachers. 

They have to have a love for the music – they must be obsessed. I was from my youth obsessed about want¬ing to conduct the sym¬phonies of Brahms, but I had no idea how. So I lis¬tened, I studied and then lit¬tle by little you get the opportunities that you have to take advantage of. 

There are more women in orchestras nowadays.

The orchestras are full of young ladies! Fifty years ago there weren’t many. 

These days we hold orchestra auditions behind curtains, so the judges don’t know if it’s a man or woman playing. And usually it’s the lady who wins the seat in the orches¬tra. They’re very good!

You have been conducting for six decades. Is it still fun?

Yes, 60 years. I started when I was 25 and now I’m 82. And yes, it’s fun – I still look forward to every concert. 


- As part of Bangkok’s International Festival of Dance & Music, Zubin Mehta will con¬duct the San Carlo Opera of Naples in the opera “Carmen” on Wednesday night and again on September 14 at the Thailand Cultural Centre.

- On Thursday he will lead the San Carlo Orchestra through “An Evening with Beethoven”, and on September 15 through two symphonies by Tchaikovsky. 

- Seats are now on sale at www.ThaiTicketMajor.com and (02) 262 3191.

- Find out more at www.BangkokFestivals.com.