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A lasting legacy

The celebrated partnership between conductor Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is coming to a close

Robert Murray

The relationship between a conductor and an orchestra can be collegial or dictatorial, a conspiracy among equals or a tempestuous family. A handful of partnerships become iconic, the perfect meeting of minds: Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, Bernstein and the New York Phil, and more recently, Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic. One partnership has outlasted all of them.

Indian-born conductor Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, have enjoyed what Mehta calls “a lasting marriage”—a harmonious 60-year romance. Mehta, who steps down from his role as Music Director in October 2019, has spent most of his career nurturing what was a quarter-century-old orchestra into international eminence. Mehta was only 25 himself when he first conducted the IPO in 1961. He recalls that he “fell in love not only with the Israeli orchestra but with the country itself”. The feeling was mutual, and the Orchestra named him Music Director in 1977, and Music Director for life in 1981.

Over the course of this legendary partnership, Mehta and the Orchestra have had many adventures and triumphs. The first came in 1967 when the Six Day War caused the scheduled conductor to withdraw from his engagement. Mehta, then in the US, regarded this as a musical crisis and hopped an ammunition-filled plane to Tel Aviv. He conducted the performance with soloists Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pré and then had to stay in the basement of the concert hall with the musicians for the next six days. Barenboim and du Pré were married in Jerusalem soon after.

The conductor also dropped everything to rush to Israel as the first Gulf War flared in 1991, performing to full halls as Scud missiles flew overhead and some of the audience came with gas masks. Nobody could question Mehta’s commitment to his orchestra and Israel, a respect that it mirrored by their audience’s loyalty.

Mehta’s conviction that music can bring peace and mutual understanding has created indelible moments: 500 Jewish and Palestinian refugee children singing together in the neutral territory of the Jerusalem YMCA, the IPO joining members of the Bavarian State Orchestra at the Buchenwald concentration camp to perform Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony, the Orchestra’s first tour of Poland, and a performance of Israel’s national anthem, ‘Hatikhva’, in Berlin.

Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is one of Israel’s cultural crown jewels, and such a conspicuous emblem of the state can bear a heavy political burden, but the calm and diplomatic Mehta defuses tension, though he is unafraid of voicing strong opinions. Classical music in Israel can be a fraught area; it’s perhaps the only place in the world where there has been parliamentary debate about performing Wagner. Mehta sees the IPO as potential agent of change and over 50 years has sought opportunities to use the olive branch of music to soothe and unite. The orchestra’s members come from all over the world but the balance is beginning to shift towards native Israelis, or sabras, rather than emigres. Mehta is optimistic that one day Arab-Israeli musicians will join the IPO’s ranks.

Now 82, Mehta is stepping away from the frontline of orchestral leadership and handing baton to 29-year-old Israeli musician Lahav Shani, the product of a musical culture that Mehta played a profound role in shaping. As Mehta and the IPO undertake a global victory lap, it's our chance to reflect on one of the most enduring artistic partnerships, and the legacy of peace and understanding has touched millions. “Never underestimate the power of music”, Mehta said in a recent interview. “Just imagine a world without all this. Impossible.”

Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra perform in the Sydney Opera House Concert hall on the 20th and 21st of March next year. Purchase tickets here.

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