Conductor Zubin Mehta, who recently returned to the podium of the New York Philharmonic where he served for 13 years as music director, joins host Gilbert Kaplan.
Mehta said he loved reconnecting with the musicians, but not the audience: “I never thought too much of the New York audience,” he said, whose applause is only enough for a conductor to return twice to take a bow.
Mehta’s favorite music includes Brahms – if he had to pick a work which best shows off his skill as a conductor, it would be a Brahms symphony; and at home he listens to chamber music, especially late Haydn trios and Brahms quartets. He admits he doesn’t particularly care for any British composers, except Elgar. The only major work he has never conducted is Wagner’s Parsifal, which he looks forward to tackling one day.
The two conductors who influenced Mehta most were Toscanini and Furtwängler – Toscanini for his fidelity to the score and Furtwängler, less faithful, but emotionally “staggering.”
He grew up in a home where legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz was a god – “Every violinist today would agree,” he says, but he believes India has its own Jascha Heifetz in sitarist Ravi Shankar. Arriving in Vienna as a teenager to study music was a cultural shock, especially when it came to the local food, which for Mehta was, “Like a diet. You know, when Americans came to Vienna they all gained weight because it was fatty food for them – for me, it was a diet compared to Indian food!”
On mounting the podium, he said if a conductor appears before an orchestra without knowing exactly what he wants, the orchestra “senses that immediately” and you lose your authority. And unlike some modern maestros who conduct in Nehru jackets, tuxedos and no tie, Mehta says he’ll never give up on traditional white tie and tails.
Richard Wagner Tristan und Isolde. “Liebestod” Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Wilhelm Furtwängler. Allegro 1014.
Ludwig van Beethoven Concerto for Violin in D major, Op. 61. [Excerpt] NBC Symphony Orchestra. Arturo Toscanini. Jascha Heifetz, violin. Classica D’oro 2002.
Sir Edward Elgar Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85. [Excerpt] Philadelphia Orchestra. Daniel Barenboim. Jacqueline du Pré, cello. Sony 78737.
“Raga Mishra Piloo” adapted by Ravi Shankar. [Excerpt] Ravi Shankar, sitar. Alla Rakha, tabla. Kamala Chakvravarty, tamboura. Angel 5172834.
Johannes Brahms Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98. [Excerpt] Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Zubin Mehta. Sony SX4K 53279.
Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 5. [Excerpt] New York Philharmonic. Zubin Mehta. Ultima 28170.
Kaplan Welcome back as we continue our exploration of maestros with today’s guest, Zubin Mehta.
Kaplan For thirteen years and more than 1,000 concerts, Zubin Mehta has dominated New York’s musical life serving as the longest tenured music director of the New York Philharmonic. And for more than 37 years he has also led the Israel Philharmonic. In Europe, he has served as the music director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and remains in that same position in the opera house in Florence. His list of awards and honors goes on and on, most recently receiving the coveted Kennedy Center Medal presented by President Bush just a few months ago, citing his passion and his musical integrity in performances and recordings that “form a living panorama of the best music-making of this or any era.” Not too bad a result for someone whose family in Bombay expected him to become a doctor. Zubin Mehta, welcome to “Mad About Music.”
Mehta Thank you very much. Thank you.
Kaplan You know, it’s really old home week in New York for all of us, seeing you on the podium last night, at the New York Philharmonic, packed houses, not always the case these days – amazing audience. What is it like to be back?
Mehta It’s back, absolutely, with my old and trusted friends. You know, in 13 years, I did more than 1,100 concerts, I think. And that’s a lot of music that passed between some of the musicians and – about seventy percent are still there, I think. You know their eyes so well! I know their way of making music, and I’m completely at home, and I think they are, too.
Kaplan Could you feel the audience was just ecstatic, about your being there?
Mehta No, that less. I’ve never, frankly, thought too much of the New York audience. But I could see from the expressions, after I turn around, the smiles on the faces, this, of course; but it’s as usual, you never come out more than twice and so it has never bothered me, after a few months of being here. We make music with all our hearts, and that’s it. This is what is more important.
Kaplan But it was my impression that you cut the applause short. I was certain you could have come out one or two more times, by my sense of the applause.
Mehta No, it never happens here! Never!
Kaplan All right. Well, having just described your remarkable career, let’s start before all that happened. Now, your brother Zarin, who runs the New York Philharmonic, was on the show before, and he told me that in your family, your father was of course a conductor, but that he forbid both of you to pursue music. He complied, and became an accountant, but he came back to music as a manager. But he said that he was glad that you simply didn’t heed his advice or his direction so, you sort of revolted. What happened?
Mehta Well, it wasn’t his advice, it was more a family decision. You know, the upper middle class, especially with my people, the Parsees, we have about five or six professions. We are either doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, etc. And the aptitude shown as a child prompts the family to choose your profession. So, I might have played with a thermometer as a three-year-old, and my mother decided that I should be a doctor. So I was sort of nurtured with that thought in my mind, brainwashed, and of course after leaving school, I went to university to do my pre-med studies, and that’s where I decided, this is not for me.
Kaplan When did you first know that you had to be a musician?
Mehta Well, I always wanted to be. Especially during the years that my father was in New York, studying with Ivan Galamian, the great violin pedagogue. I was alone with my music lessons and the record collection that he left in our home, and I would listen to records every single night after dinner. And you know, those were not high-fidelity sounding records like today, but they were conducted by the finest conductors that we emulate today. Toscanini, Thomas Beecham, Furtwängler, and Stokowski.
Kaplan Well, then, let’s turn to your musical selections today, and I see that your first selection is a work conducted by Furtwängler, a man you said greatly influenced you as a child.
Mehta Yes, when I grew up with this record collection that my father had, and there were records of Furtwängler and Toscanini, and one of the pieces of Wagner that I first listened to, in fact, that was my introduction to Wagner, was the “Prelude und Liebestod” of Tristan und Isolde, and as I said, the sound wasn’t perfect, but the tempo and the pacing that I listened to at a very early age never left me. And that was then reiterated when I went to Vienna and I heard great conductors like Karajan or Böhm doing the same music. Just imagine what I as a fifteen or sixteen-year-old boy listening to this music for the first time, it was a revolution for me, too, because I grew up in my father’s home listening to chamber music from Haydn to Schubert to Brahms, etc. Suddenly this Wagner was such a revolution in my ears, also. And I think the “Liebestod” really portrays that wonderfully.
Kaplan The “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the Berlin Philharmonic led by Wilhelm Furtwängler, a scratchy but riveting recording made in the 1930s and a childhood memory of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, conductor Zubin Mehta. You know, listening to you describe that magical moment of hearing Furtwängler conduct Wagner brings up a topic raised by another conductor when he appeared on “Mad About Music” – Valery Gergiev. He said that it is an enormous challenge for today’s conductors to measure up to the giants of the past and that if conductors were really honest, today’s conductors, they would admit that only a portion of what they do is really good. How do you feel about that?
Mehta Well, it depends on whether I’m conducting “my” orchestras, in other words, Israel or in Florence or, for the last eight years, the Staatsorchester of the Bavarian Opera. With these orchestras that I’ve done the same pieces so often, of course there is an immediate rapport. And of course with a guest orchestra, one never fulfills that ideal, musically speaking; and I don’t guest-conduct hardly at all. I mean, New York Philharmonic is not guest-conducting. I come back home to my colleagues. So that’s different. And Vienna and Berlin, I go every year. So, apart from that, I just don’t do anything.
Kaplan Well, you talk about familiarity with the work and familiarity with the orchestra. If you were to conduct a new symphony, or when you were younger, say, and you introduced yourself to a masterpiece, how long would it take before you felt you really had mastered it? And by way of comparison, I’ll quote another conductor who once told a young conductor, this is Herbert von Karajan, that you really should throw away the first 100 performances of Beethoven’s Fifth before you’re really ready to conduct it. And that’s an exaggeration, I suppose, but …
Mehta Well, it’s an exaggeration, but it’s probably true. Karajan once told me that you cannot conduct a Bruckner symphony unless you’re at least 80 years old, and I told him, yeah, but you didn’t say that when you were 40, did you!
Kaplan But you know, conductors are often characterized by their approach to music, and you talked about Furtwängler before, Karajan now. He was best known, I think, for perfection of sound, say; and Leonard Bernstein for pushing the emotional envelope about as far as it can go, and perhaps Pierre Boulez, a more clinical clarity in his presentation. In that sort of context, how would you describe yourself?
Mehta Well, we try a little of everything. We try for clarity and for emotion, and for beauty of sound. These are factors that I am conscious of every minute of every rehearsal. So I don’t want to stamp myself as any one particular category at all. In fact, none of these conductors would agree either, that they are just in one, under one chapter. But, beauty of sound really emanates from the orchestra’s point of view, from Vienna. There’s no doubt about it. The concept of beauty of sound, because when you hear a Toscanini performance from Studio 8H, where I performed a couple of times during my time in New York, it’s the worst acoustic you can imagine. So, poor Toscanini, even with this great NBC Symphony, there was no way that there would be a beautiful sound coming, emanating from that dreadful place. So, when you hear recordings of the NBC Symphony, it’s not Toscanini’s fault that the Eroica sounds so strident and metallic sometimes. And then you hear a Furtwängler recording from the Musikverein of Vienna, you cannot compare the sounds. And therefore the beauty of sound that emanates from Central Europe is what we try to emulate. In fact, in my case, having heard no sound at all until I was 18, because neither the records I heard in Bombay had any sound, nor the semi-amateur orchestra my father conducted. So that when I went to Vienna, the first sound I heard was the Vienna Philharmonic, under Karl Böhm, doing the Brahms First Symphony.
Kaplan Spoiled forever!
Mehta You talk about a culture shock! This was a culture shock! I mean, then came the snow, which I never knew, and the food of Vienna, which, for me, was like a diet. You know, when Americans came to Vienna, they all gained weight because it was fatty food for them. For me, it was a diet compared to the Indian food! So there were a lot of shocks I encountered, but none as much as the first sound of the Brahms First Symphony in the Musikverein.
Kaplan What we’re about to now hear is, of course, just the opposite. Because I see your next selection is Toscanini, playing in that – as we would say today, acoustically challenged studio – and so tell us about your next work.
Mehta Well, growing up in a violinist’s home, even before my father went to America to study in 1945, we had one god ever present in our home, and that was Jascha Heifetz. Any violinist would agree with what I’m saying. My father had every recording of Jascha Heifetz, even those recordings from the primitive times when there was only one side of the record. The other side was blank. Little pieces, you know, encore pieces. So I knew every recording of Jascha Heifetz. In fact, you know, I can accompany almost any violin concerto today at a moment’s notice, because I just know it from my childhood, even without having studied the score. I know the violin part so well. And one of these recordings, of course, was the Beethoven Concerto with Toscanini. And I mean, even today when I conduct the piece, I know where the record changed, because the first movement was three sides. And it’s a performance I cannot get out of my ears.
Kaplan The conclusion of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with soloist Jascha Heifetz and the NBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Arturo Toscanini. A selection and yet another vivid childhood memory of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” the conductor Zubin Mehta. When we return, we’ll talk about two legendary conductors that served as role models for Zubin Mehta.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on “Mad About Music,” conductor Zubin Mehta. So far, your musical selections have included two legendary conductors, Furtwängler and Toscanini – role models, you said. And you know, they’re often cited as role models by many different conductors. But to my ears, they are completely different and I wonder how would you characterize that difference?
Mehta Well, Toscanini was the great revolutionary as far as interpretation is concerned, because he came from an age where conductors, including Wagner or Mahler or Hans Richter, used to, sometimes, reorchestrate pieces that they conducted. And they used to embellish Beethoven symphonies or Schumann symphonies, etc., and Toscanini said, let’s clean the painting once and for all and see what is underneath. And you heard, whether you liked it or not, a Beethoven symphony exactly as it was written on paper. And this was a great revelation for all of the generations, and we profited from this. To hear the Eroica conducted by Toscanini, with what we feel are the right tempi, the right tempo relations, that was not done before. Toscanini also put the emotion in it. He was not a cold fish in any case. When you hear some of his performance recordings, there’s great fervor and also strength, sometimes rhythmaticly to make his point, but on the whole he presented the work as he felt the composer wrote it down on paper.
Kaplan And Furtwängler?
Mehta And Furtwängler didn’t disagree at all. Didn’t reorchestrate the Beethoven symphonies, but he read between the lines, between the notes. What was the intention of saying this is piano, diminuendo to pianissimo, back to mezzo forte; let’s not do it verbatim as it says on paper, but let’s do it organically so that it makes sense. Well, both made sense, but if you hear the same Eroica, a performance recording of Furtwängler, the Adagio, the funeral march. I mean, it is staggering. The emotional content, and the buildup, and he knew, as every conductor should, where he’s going with the Adagio, with the little fugue in the middle, etc. It was something of a revelation to us, the next generation, who heard both. And therefore it is wonderful that we have inherited both these philosophies that we can use for ourselves.
Kaplan All right, let’s turn to another subject. Let’s turn to the relationship between the orchestra and the conductor. One of the most tricky ones, psychologically, emotionally, power, all kinds of issues come up there, and I’m always interested and I’ve had some of your colleagues on the show discussing this. What is it that conductors do that make that relationship go sour? Lorin Maazel said that the bigger problem is when a conductor is too arrogant or has too much vanity. Valery Gergiev said an orchestra should never know the conductor hates what he’s conducting. Strange comment! Leonard Slatkin said that his biggest beef with conductors is that they come, knowing what they’re going to rehearse, even if the orchestra does it well, they begin to fix it and the orchestra says, but we did that already, and finally, Mariss Jansons said that a conductor who comes without knowing exactly what he wants gets into trouble quickly because the orchestra sees him improvising and he loses his authority. So what are your thoughts on what conductors do that makes the relationship with the orchestra become difficult?
Mehta Ah, first of all, if you don’t come prepared. The orchestra senses immediately when you don’t know where you’re going; or when you’re using the rehearsal as an improvisation. Now, stage directors do this all the time. We get so tired of them doing the same old musical phrase over again until they find the right way to show the actors/singers what to do. We only have four times two and a half hours in which to put together a certain work. If we don’t come with a vision, the prepared vision of where we are going, what this phrase or what this section should sound like and we grope with this lamp in the dark tunnel, then we are going nowhere. The orchestra senses this immediately.
Kaplan What about relationships with soloists? Now, last night you conducted and a wonderful young cellist played and the collaboration seemed wonderful. But you know of course the story of Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould, where they were so far apart in ideas, that Leonard Bernstein felt obliged to talk to the audience saying, “we simply don’t agree.” Have you ever had any of those kinds of experiences?
Mehta I’ve had many of such experiences. But I have not turned to the public and divulged what I really think because I am a professional. No, no, no. It is imperative that a soloist who has spent years preparing that particular concerto and has played it so many times in his life and is convinced of his interpretation, you must be subservient to that. You can discuss, you can try to change his opinion, but it’s unfair to tell a – you know, if the concert is on Thursday evening, you meet him with the orchestra on Wednesday afternoon. In those 24 hours, it is unreasonable to ask a soloist to diametrically change all his thoughts about it. That’s impossible. In the case of this young lady playing Elgar, I think she is enormously gifted. I mean, she just – she doesn’t even know what it is to play a wrong note. I worked with her privately two days before the concert and we had certain discussions. She was very flexible, and then I was flexible with her and I had a wonderful rapport with her.
Kaplan Well, I think it was an extraordinary performance. We should mention her name is Alisa Weilerstein, young and very talented. And it’s a very good transition into your next work, because the piece you performed last night, and in fact you have on your list to play today with a very different, special soloist. And it’s the Elgar Cello Concerto.
Mehta I must say, this choice has nothing to do with the fact that I was going to perform the concerto with Alisa, but this recording of Jacqueline du Pré with my friend Daniel Barenboim and the Philadelphia Orchestra is one of the supreme performances of any concerto I know by any soloist. And it is a concert performance, therefore it is not manipulated in any way in the studio; and if I would take two recordings with me to a desert island, this would be one of them. And I had the good fortune of accompanying Jacqueline many times. In fact, her last concert in London, before she stopped playing, was the Elgar, with me, with the Philharmonia Orchestra and therefore I cannot choose anything more appropriate to pay homage to my two friends, than the Elgar Concerto.
Kaplan An excerpt from the historic and award-winning live recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto with soloist Jacqueline du Pré, the Philadelphia Orchestra with Daniel Barenboim conducting, a selection of my guest on “Mad About Music,” conductor Zubin Mehta. Speaking of Daniel Barenboim, as you know, he recently stepped down as music director in Chicago and in doing so he gave as a reason that the non-musical obligations, such as fund raising, was something he didn’t want to do any more. What is your view about what should be expected of a music director? I suppose with the Israel Philharmonic you had to do a lot more than you had to do in Germany with the Bavarian State Opera?
Mehta Well, Israel is a little bit like America in the sense that the government gives little or nothing towards the budget. In America, absolutely nothing. In Israel, less than ten percent. So of course your box office doesn’t bring in your entire budget. Therefore, you have to go begging.
Kaplan But is it the job of the music director to do that begging?
Mehta No. But it is the job of the music director to say thank you. And I suppose Daniel, after doing that for one and one half decades in Chicago, just got tired of it. I’ve never discussed that with him, but I suppose that’s the reason.
Kaplan But it’s not something that would trouble you in that position?
Mehta No, but it is time consuming. One has to go to the amount of cocktails and say thank you to… but I say, from my heart, we are grateful to those people who help.
Kaplan Well, despite Daniel Barenboim’s reluctance to participate in the non-musical functions normally expected of a music director in America, from out of the blue the current music director of the New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel, writes a letter saying that Daniel Barenboim should be the man to succeed him. It was a bombshell! Then the plot thickened when you appeared on the Charlie Rose show recently and said, “Well, I agree with that.”
Mehta Well, how can you disagree? Daniel is one of the great conductors, he would be very well suited to the New York Philharmonic, so I agree with Lorin. But of course you have to give the search committee and the orchestra, also, their choice. And I’m sure Daniel would be on the list.
Kaplan All right, let’s leave the turmoil of the classical music profession for a moment, and we can now come to your “Wildcard,” which on this show means you can pick anything you like. It can be rock, it can be jazz; we’ve had some remarkably different ideas here. What did you bring us today?
Mehta Well, I would like to go back to another kind of a Jascha Heifetz of my country, Ravi Shankar. It’s a man whose music I grew up with in India, just by listening, I didn’t study Indian music. But he was always a hero of sorts, and it was a great, great honor for me finally when he came and played with me, with the New York Philharmonic. In fact, his second sitar concerto was composed for the members of the New York Philharmonic. Now, I don’t want to play that concerto, because it is not, let’s say, pure Indian music, but I would like to play one raga, at least, parts of it. A raga lasts at least 25 minutes, too long for your show, so I would like to play the beginning of an evening raga called “Mishra Piloo,” and then of course the end of it, where the percussion section joins in, which is of course Alla Rakha, the greatest tabla player of all times. He and Ravi Shankar was an unbeatable combination, as far as India was concerned. They went all over the world. They are the ones who took Indian music out of India, performed it at Carnegie Hall, etc., and all over Europe and, I mean, I am very proud to include Ravigee’s music in my program today.
Kaplan An excerpt from an evening raga, adopted and performed by Ravi Shankar on the sitar and Alla Rakha on the tabla, the “Wildcard” choice of my guest on “Mad About Music,” conductor Zubin Mehta, who believes that what the violinist Jascha Heifetz is to the world, Ravi Shankar is to India. I’d like now to turn to two aspects of conducting we haven’t discussed today – money and fashion. Every now and then when some orchestra gets into financial trouble the press raises the question of whether under those circumstances conductors with their multi-million dollar paychecks are simply overcompensated. Is that a reasonable question to ask?
Mehta Yes, it is a reasonable question. I don’t know how to answer that, because I don’t know how much my colleagues earn. I really don’t. In fact, even when I was music director in New York or in Los Angeles, I didn’t know how much the guest conductors were paid. I didn’t interfere with that, I just wanted the best conductors available. There was a ceiling, I know, in New York, about conductors’ fees. And some conductors, like Erich Leinsdorf, had it in their contract that they would get equivalent to the highest paid, to any conductor. I don’t even know how much that was. Frankly, I don’t know how much my colleagues earn – if it’s exaggerated, then I agree.
Kaplan Well, it’s interesting the way you described it, because what I read in that article is a statement which sort of flows from what you’re saying now. I believe you said, that we may be too much and I would be willing to work for less, provided nobody else got more. I mentioned that because …
Mehta Well, that’s a question of vanity! I tell you the Vienna Philharmonic has one law. They pay all their conductors the same amount. This I know for a fact. In fact, it is so little that I said, you know, after I pay your taxes and the hotel bill, I have nothing left. So for the last few years, I instigated that the Vienna Philharmonic pays our hotel bill.
Kaplan Well, you’ve done great service to all your colleagues! Well, let’s talk about one other unrelated musical question: fashion. I would observe that you may be one of the last who still conducts in full tails, white tie, not in pajamas, not in a Nehru jacket, not in a tuxedo.
Mehta That may be true! I just haven’t thought about changing. I feel good with musicians wearing tails, and I’m in the same clothes. I’ve never given it any thought. And you’re absolutely right. I did, with four of my violin colleagues for a charity concert recently, the Vivaldi Concerto for Four Violins. Every one of them had a different costume on! I came on the stage, I was laughing! What is going on? But they were all full of fantasy and they wanted to do something new, and you have to respect that with the younger generation.
Kaplan All right then, let’s come back to music and finally, to a piece you conduct yourself. When I invited you on this show, I asked you to pick a few pieces you conduct as well as pieces you had some other relationship with, so here we come to Brahms and one of your most important orchestras, the Israel Philharmonic.
Mehta Well, the four Brahms symphonies is one of the reasons I wanted to be a conductor. I knew all four Brahms symphonies, I wouldn’t say intimately, or even analytically in Bombay, but I knew them. And the fact that I learned them with my professor, the only group of pieces that I learned in its entirety with my teacher, as far as analysis is concerned, and then I had so many opportunities to hear the great conductors in Vienna conduct all four. I was extremely proud when in those days Sony Records asked me to record all four symphonies. First of all, with the New York Philharmonic, and later on, with the Israel orchestra. And I have chosen the fourth movement of the fourth symphony, which is Brahms at his romantic height, but completely classical in the form of the passacaglia, which he inherited from the classical period, and you see the complete line almost from Bach through Beethoven to Brahms in this movement. And, I think I am quite proud of this performance.
Kaplan The concluding moments of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, the Israel Philharmonic with their music director for life and my guest today on “Mad About Music,” Zubin Mehta. When we return, we’ll explore the music Zubin Mehta has not yet conducted as well as composers whose works he prefers not to conduct.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on “Mad About Music” today, conductor Zubin Mehta. You know, we’ve talked a lot about music that you have conducted, but now I’d like to ask you about music that you’d just like to listen to.
Mehta If I would listen to any sort of recorded music at home, it would be the odd Haydn symphony that I don’t know, because I certainly don’t know all 104 of them. Or some chamber music, especially chamber music that I know that I grew up with. I love hearing the late Haydn quartets, or a Brahms trio, also because it brings me back to my home.
Kaplan Now, you mentioned the Haydn group of symphonies, that you don’t know them all. Is there any major piece you have not yet conducted?
Mehta Yes. Parsifal.
Kaplan Parsifal? And is there a reason for that?
Mehta Ah, no reason.
Kaplan Because you’ve conducted an enormous amount of Wagner in Munich.
Mehta No, I’ve conducted, including Rienzi, every opera of Wagner except Parsifal. And I will do it. I’m still young.
Kaplan Now you’ve mentioned that you’ve never conducted Parsifal. Another sort of blank at the moment in your Wagner experience is Bayreuth. Is that something you would like to do?
Mehta I’ve been offered it, in my early days, especially Wieland Wagner invited me a few times. But it’s a time period that I cannot just sacrifice and go for three months to Bayreuth. I just have never been able to do that, because all my work in Israel is in the month of July and then we go on tour. So I’ve never been able to do it.
Kaplan Are there any composers with whom you don’t connect particularly, well-known composers who, you like them, but they’re not for you to conduct, particularly.
Mehta I would say, except Elgar, most of the English symphonists. I think its a little bit my Indian background, too. It’s just – we didn’t cozy up to the English much in my youth. It’s different today. It’s of course different. I really learned Elgar outside of India. And I never really took to Vaughan Williams or William Walton, to that extent.
Kaplan Now, here’s a question I’ve asked every conductor who’s been on the show, so you get a shot at it also. You’re obviously at a point in your career, you’re not auditioning for jobs, but in the fantasy world, where you now have to audition, what would be the piece you would pick that would best show your skills?
Mehta I suppose a Brahms symphony. I auditioned the first movement of the Brahms First for Georg Solti when I wanted to be his assistant in Los Angeles, and he didn’t like the Mozart symphony as much, but he really loved the Brahms First. In fact, I spent some time with him afterwards, and he told me that he thought the Mozart was a little too fast, etc. In other words, from my youngest days, I’ve had this incredible sort of spiritual connection with Brahms.
Kaplan That’s interesting that you picked Brahms. I can perfectly understand your reasoning. I had a feeling you were going to say Mahler for some reason, because you certainly have an extraordinary reputation with Mahler, and I see it is the next piece of music you want to play today.
Mehta Well, I’m rather proud of the recording of the Mahler Fifth with the New York Philharmonic. And we did it almost as a performance, which is wonderful, because it’s not – you know, we never have enough time, especially with American recording conditions to record piecemeal. Which is, in a way, from the performance point of view, wonderful. And we really recorded each movement through and made corrections, etc., So I think I would pick the first movement of the Mahler Fifth, with its great solo playing in it. Phil Smith was an addition of mine to the New York Philharmonic; and even today, when I hear him playing, I’m very proud of my selection. And he’s the one who starts the symphony off and I’m glad that we could end the program with the New York Philharmonic.
Kaplan The opening of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the New York Philharmonic and on the podium, my guest on “Mad About Music” today, conductor Zubin Mehta. As we approach the closing of this show, I’d like to ask what in your mind is left to do. You’ve just turned 70. And I’ll put that question in a broader context because earlier you mentioned that Sir Georg Solti had once auditioned you. When he was asked that same question, he said, “I just try to get a bit better every time I conduct.”
Mehta I couldn’t agree more. Every concert is a rehearsal for the next concert, every performance. We have to learn as we go along and conducting is of course communicating, but it takes also experience. There’s no doubt about it. Some things that I do today have been convinced when I was twenty-five. So my tempos really haven’t changed, maybe. But the inner workings and the way I let an orchestra sort of conduct itself sometimes, I’ve learned more how to do. I’m fortunate to conduct great orchestras. I can choose my own repertoire today and, contrary to what you quoted my colleague Valery Gergiev, I don’t think I ever do pieces that I hate. So I don’t have to pretend in front of the orchestra. I love everything I’m doing. And I’m very fortunate.
Kaplan Well, Zubin Mehta, it is actually we who are fortunate. It’s been wonderful seeing you back on the podium of the New York Philharmonic again and you’ve been a fascinating guest. As we say farewell to you, I also want to say goodbye to our superb producer, Gail Ross, for whom this will be her final show, and to acknowledge the extraordinary contribution she has made since the very first show. Until next month then, this is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music.”