Kaplan Welcome back to "Mad About Music" where today we explore the musical taste of the man who runs the New York Philharmonic, president Zarin Mehta.
Kaplan He grew up in India where his father was a professional violinist, but a man determined that his two sons would not pursue the same career in music. He succeeded with one, who became an accountant; but he failed with the other, who became a conductor - Zubin Mehta. But the siren call of music ultimately lured the accountant too, and today he's the president of the New York Philharmonic. Zarin Mehta, welcome to "Mad About Music."
Mehta Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.
Kaplan Now, this show, as our listeners know, is mostly about guests who are not in the music profession. But of course people in the profession love music, and are listeners also, and we'll find out about your musical tastes in a moment. But for me, it's a rare opportunity to discuss music with a leading figure in the business, and I take my direction from Sir Georg Solti, who once said to me that what a pleasure it was to speak to people from Wall Street, because with them he speaks about music. When he meets his colleagues, they talk about money. And the newspapers, of course, are always writing about the dire financial conditions of orchestras. The need to always raise more money. What is your view of the current situation?
Mehta Well, my view of the current situation is that it really hasn't changed much over the last 50 or 60 years. Just the numbers are changing. Five years ago, when I came to the New York Philharmonic, I spent some time in our archives looking through some of the background and history of the Philharmonic, and I stumbled across an article from 1935 in the Fortune magazine with the then-chairman of the New York Philharmonic who was bemoaning the fact that they had to raise so much money because only 85% of the budget was covered by ticket sales. Now you know enough about this business, I mean, 25 years ago when I came into this business, it was 60%. Now it's a little under 50% so there's always the question of raising money and that's the nature of this business. And there's nothing you can do about it.
Kaplan Now, maybe one of the reasons those numbers have become higher in terms of the costs but not the revenue, has to do with the fees that are paid to people. Recently Norman Lebrecht, a writer in Britain who writes about music, commented that he thought it was absurd for orchestras to pay such fancy fees to artists. And he suggested that what the Metropolitan Opera does, puts a real ceiling on it, no matter how dazzling the artist is, is the right way to go. What do you think about that?
Mehta Well, first of all, the fact that the fees are ridiculous, I think there is a certain truth to that, but again, this is not something new. This happened in this century or the 1990's. I remember again going into history, Caruso was paid $10,000 in the early 1900's. Imagine what that is today for a concert. We have a ceiling for fees, as the Metropolitan Opera does, but when you have half a dozen really top-name artists, if an orchestra which is not New York or Chicago, wants to get one of these major people, and there are so many demands on them, it's economics, it's Wall Street, you know? You're going to go to the highest bidder, and so people can charge what they want, and people do pay it, because it's a unique event.
Kaplan All right, well, if he were around today, I suspect that Nathan Milstein would certainly be worth it, and I see he's included in your first selection today.
Mehta He certainly is. Nathan was probably for me one of the greatest violinists and musicians, and people, that I knew. And when you talk about him, also in relation to fees, I often tell young artists today, who don't want to play subscription concerts, the more famous people, and they wanted only specials, I said, you know, Milstein, when he was in his 70's, came to Montreal and played the Brahms Concerto with the Montreal Symphony, because he felt it was his responsibility to help fill the subscription season, because when he was young, other people did it for him. And he's going to do it for the Itzhak Perlmans and the Pinchas Zukermans who were like in their 20's at the time. And Nathan had a very small repertoire that he played in public, I mean, he would come to my house and he'd play things like the Bartók concerto and the Sibelius, which he never played in public. But he knew them all. And he had one of the most extraordinary senses of humor that I'd ever come across. And for today, I've asked you to play the Bach sonatas because I heard him doing all of them in London. And Nathan was just unbelievable as to how he played these sonatas. And I know them, they are difficult sonatas to listen to, I know them intimately because my father was a violinist, a professional violinist, who studied with Galamian. And he learned them in the living room in our studio at home, and my brother and I listened to them and I think we know every note in each of the sonatas and partitas as a result.
Kaplan The fourth movement from Bach's Sonata No. 1, for solo violin, performed by Nathan Milstein, a selection of my guest on "Mad About Music" today, the president of the New York Philharmonic, Zarin Mehta. Now, Milstein was a genuine star in his time, and his name alone would fill a house. It's been my observation that it is very difficult to find people today in that category. I don't want to press you to name names, but why not? Who are the artists today who simply, their appearance, you sell out the house.
Mehta There are, as you said, today fewer than there used to be. Now I think part of it is that we have become a "star-oriented" society, and they're not as used to listening to music on the radio and records and so on, as they did in the 60's and 70's, when Milstein was obviously at the top of his game. Today I would say that the people, that if I wanted to have an automatic sell-out, not of a single night, but of a subscription week, Itzhak Perlman, of course, Lang-Lang now, Yo-Yo, Renée Fleming, Byrn Terfel, Kissin, Pinchas Zukerman to a large extent. I'm sure there's others, but you know, there's not that many, I remember back as you do, in the 60's and 70's, when the people like the Pollinis were playing more, you see, Pollini doesn't play subscription concerts anymore, Brendel doesn't come very often. So that's what's changed also in our business, is that these artists are not coming and doing the four concerts like the Milsteins and Rubensteins did as their duty.
Kaplan Now, the New York Philharmonic is, of course, a star orchestra. It's fascinating to compare different orchestras and I see that for your next selection you have picked the Berlin Philharmonic in a June 1950 recording of Beethoven's "Eroica."
Mehta This is what to me is one of the greatest conductors that I never heard. Toscanini was another one. And Furtwängler, when I first went to England as a young student in the 50's, he was supposed to come for his first tour with the Berlin Philharmonic and play in the Festival Hall, and as a young teenager, I bought tickets to go to it, and Furtwängler died two weeks before the tour. And I missed hearing the "Eroica," and when the recording came out it was one of the first recordings I ever bought. And I still have it. It's now on CD. And when I want to lose myself in music, this is what I listen to. The "Eroica" symphony, which is, of course, one of the greatest works ever written, but the grandeur, the majesty, which Furtwängler brings to it, is unparalleled.
Kaplan The third movement of Beethoven's Third Symphony, the "Eroica" performed by the Berlin Philharmonic in June 1950 under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwängler - a work chosen both for the music and the conductor by my guest on "Mad About Music" today, the president of the New York Philharmonic, Zarin Mehta. When we return, we'll discuss whether the program of the New York Philharmonic is too conservative.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest today on "Mad About Music," the president of the New York Philharmonic, Zarin Mehta. Let's talk about conservatism and risk-taking in music. I think it's fair to describe your selections today as conservative - Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner and Schubert. Are there any composers you don't particularly connect to?
Mehta Gilbert and Sullivan. Probably I would have a hard time with pre-Bach, the Rameaus and the Lullys, and so on, that doesn't do very much for me. Other than that, I don't really - I had a hard time coming up with this list, and I suppose it makes, it sounds conservative, but it was an emotional list, based on if I had nothing else left, what would I want to listen to? And I looked at it from that standpoint. Does that mean that I don't want to hear a Tchaikovsky waltz? Or a Bartók Romanian Dance? Or the Rite of Spring, which I've played ad nauseum in my house? You know, some of this, it's a moot situation.
Kaplan What about contemporary music? Do you connect to that?
Mehta Yeah. Of course I connect to it. The question is, what's contemporary? Let's define that. I mean …
Kaplan The music that is being composed today.
Mehta Yes, but the music being composed today, a lot of it is easier to listen to than Schoenberg or Berg. And I listen to Wozzeck quite a lot. I listen to Schoenberg quite a lot. The piano concerto I adore. I think it's more difficult to listen to than a John Adams piece of today. And John Adams, I think today, is one of the great composers of our time. It's very hard to say that you have the same relationship emotionally with the music that has just been written, to the music that has matured over the last 100, 200 years. I can't explain why, is it the form? I think it is what has survived, I'm sure when I look back again on the history of the New York Philharmonic, programs of the 1880's and 1860's, three quarters of those works are never played anymore. Only a few of them have survived, the ones that we know. So the same thing will happen with the works of the 1970's and 80's.
Kaplan Well, let's then talk about the orchestra. First, do you feel it is a fair comment to say that the programming of the New York Philharmonic tends on the conservative side?
Mehta Well, again, I will say, what is conservative? I think as long as we're playing great music, it doesn't matter when it was written. And the question is, that if we, once in a while, bring in a piece from the 19th century that is hardly ever done, but that needs to be refreshed and re-aired, I think that should be done as well as the new music. And one has to look at it from the standpoint that today we are trying to bring people in four times a week in all our major orchestras, whether it's Boston or Chicago, or wherever, and you have to bring new audiences. We all agree that the audiences are changing, that we have to bring new people in. Well, those new people who are coming have never heard the "Eroica" symphony live. Or they've never heard a Mozart piano concerto. And I think they deserve to listen to it, too. We can't base it on a few people in the press who are going to six or eight concerts a week, who are bored with listening to the "Eroica." It's as simple as that.
Kaplan Okay, well, let's return then to music and a piece which might be characteristic of the way you described before, it was a conservative piece today, but radical when it was presented. Wagner's Tristan.
Mehta For me, Tristan - again, one can't say it's the greatest opera, because it depends what genre you're talking about. But what he created in this opera was the ultimate of tonality and of passion. And the reason I chose this recording of Karajan was of course, Karajan was a great conductor, but because of Jon Vickers who, to me, was amongst the two or three greatest artists that I have known and heard. And Tristan, specifically, when I was in Montreal my brother Zubin conducted a series of Tristan performances with Jon Vickers. And I went to most of the final rehearsals, and about seven performances, and I would like you to play the excerpt at the end of the second act, where King Mark has discovered Tristan and Isolde in a love tryst, and he apologizes in a sense to his king, he says, "Oh König" and the way Jon sings it, I think there wasn't a dry eye in the house, and Maureen Forrester, who sang Braengane, told me that every rehearsal they were in tears listening to this man sing, the passion, the emotion, he brings to it.
Kaplan The emotional ending of Act II of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, sung by Jon Vickers, with the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Herbert von Karajan. A selection of my guest on "Mad About Music" today, the president of the New York Philharmonic, Zarin Mehta. Now, the relationship between the president, you, and the music director is always a tricky one in all orchestras. From all reports, it's been a very harmonious relationship between you and maestro Maazel. But there must be some areas where you have slightly different points of view. Not necessarily clashing, but can you give us an insight into that relationship, and the sort of ideas where you may not be exactly always on the same page?
Mehta Well, that's hard to say with Lorin, because we really do see eye to eye on everything. Now, having said that, he is the music director, he has the final say on the programming, the artists, the conductors, etc.
Kaplan But you say that you really don't play a significant role on artistic matters….
Mehta No, I didn't say that! I said we work very much together, but it's his final decision.
Kaplan Now, your colleague across the plaza at Lincoln Center, Joe Volpe, has said that he really makes the final decisions, because he signs the checks. So I assume that that would be an aspect of your job, which affects artistic matters, if a program is proposed that's very ambitious, money-wise, you would obviously have a say on that, I would think.
Mehta Yes, absolutely I do. And there are times when conductors suggest something, and Lorin will say, can we afford it? I mean, he's a very practical person. And he has not come to us with one thing so far that would be so ridiculously expensive that we couldn't afford it. Having said that, we are planning a couple of things for his final season which is going to cost a lot, and we've said, you know, we'll have to raise the money for it. He's earned it.
Kaplan Well, speaking of earning it, after your first glorious selections today, you've earned the right to pick a "Wildcard," a work outside the world of classical music and opera. What "Wildcard" did you bring us today?
Mehta Well, my "Wildcard" is Ella Fitzgerald. And I wonder, Gil, how many other people have chosen her?
Kaplan No one yet.
Mehta No one yet? Well, I have to say that no - I mean, again, I'm going into hyperbole, but I can't think of an artist that has given me such consistent pleasure over the last 50 years as her. She has a gorgeous voice, she has rhythm, she has diction, she has intonation, there's a clarity of musical presentation, which I have not come across anywhere else. And the last time I worked with her was I think in '91, maybe '92, I don't remember, at Ravenia, she opened the Jazz Festival, and she came three or four days before the performance, and stayed in the hotel, she loved to watch soap operas. But what I found out when I went to see her one evening, shortly after she arrived, that she was an absolutely mad basketball fan, and the Lakers were in the NBA finals with the Chicago Bulls. Of course, Chicago was, that was the first time the Bulls won the championship. And the night she was supposed to sing would have been the seventh game of the finals, if one of the teams hadn't won by that time, and I remember saying to her, "Ella, what's going to happen if it goes to the seventh game?" And she looked at me and said, "Honey, we're going to have to cancel the concert!" Well, the Bulls won and she did the concert and there was one piece that she did that last concert, which is one of the great examples of ballad singing, it's a song that most people don't know, it's called "Moonlight in Vermont."
Kaplan "Moonlight in Vermont," sung by Ella Fitzgerald, the "Wildcard" selection of my guest on "Mad About Music," today, the president of the New York Philharmonic, Zarin Mehta. A "Wildcard," as he put it to me before we went on the air, not terribly "wild," but he said it's as good as any serious lieder. Now, there was quite a bit of a to-do last year about the possibility of a merger between the New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall.
Mehta I never heard about that!
Kaplan Well, I, being on the board of Carnegie Hall, as I must disclose, did. And while there are good reasons why it might have worked, and good reasons why it didn't work, one of the principal discussions was the legendary acoustics of Carnegie Hall. And I'm wondering, now that you are about to embark on restoring or trying to improve the acoustics of Fisher Hall, how much better is Carnegie? If I were to say that Carnegie, on a scale today, would be one hundred in acoustics, where would you place Fisher Hall today?
Mehta Today? Probably around 75 or 80?
Kaplan And what do you think it might get to with the acoustical work you're about to do?
Mehta I think pretty close to 100.
Kaplan Close to 100? Well, exactly how are you going to achieve this? I know you've been experimenting with pushing the stage further into the audience. Is this the key to getting the acoustics you need?
Mehta Well, not only the acoustics, it's getting the ambiance. As I say, from where the conductor stands to the last row, is so long and the first balcony, which are generally the best seats in any auditorium, it is so far away you can hardly see. So, the concept of moving the stage forward has been there for the last five years. We tried it out acoustically a year and a half ago, for a rehearsal. We built the stage 30 feet into the house, and the sound was not only remarkable, but people sitting in the hall in the balconies suddenly felt, wow! this makes sense. We are on top of the music.
Kaplan Now, you have a reputation as someone who does not exaggerate and when you say you think that with the restoration that Fisher Hall might be on the same level of acoustical quality as Carnegie, that's quite amazing to me.
Mehta I said acoustic quality plus the ambiance of comfort and so on, yes.
Kaplan Even more then. Wonderful! Well, you know, voices are always a special consideration when it comes to acoustics of halls and I see your next selection involves one of the finest singers of lieder we've ever had, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
Mehta Yes, this is another example, like Ella, of somebody that has given me and my wife, who is also a singer, such extraordinary pleasure over the last 40 years. He was the first, when I first went to London; he was the first lieder recital I heard with Gerald Moore. And it was the Schöne Müllerin of Schubert. And I've heard, God know how many recitals of his, and performances of the orchestra. But what he does again like Ella, and I don't want to say one is like the other, but the clarity of diction, the absolute - you don't feel that there's any technique, it just happens. And this particular selection, the Magelone lieder of Brahms, are again very rarely done because not only are they difficult for the singer, but they're fiendish for the pianist, and it's like a Brahms piano concerto, and of course Richter does it from memory.
Kaplan The opening song from Brahms' cycle Die schöne Magelone sung by Dietrich Fischer-Diskau and accompanied by Sviatoslav Richter, a selection of my guest today on "Mad About Music," the president of the New York Philharmonic, Zarin Mehta. When we return, we'll explore the impact of what the critics have to say about the New York Philharmonic.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on today's edition of "Mad About Music," the president of the New York Philharmonic, Zarin Mehta. Let's talk about "the Critics." Obviously, this is something difficult for you to be too candid about, but I'm curious, what effect you think they really have? One understands that the New York Times critics, when it comes to Broadway, can be very influential. I'm not sure from my own observation that the audience for the New York Philharmonic pays too much attention to the reviews, but I'd love to hear your own reaction to that.
Mehta Look, critics are a fact of life in every city and New York is no different. Again, historically, the critics of the New York Times have never liked the music director of the New York Philharmonic. Mitropoulos was run out of town, by how he was treated. Lenny Bernstein was devastated by the New York Times. Boulez did not have a good time, my brother did not have a good, Masur was good and bad, and so on; and Lorin has become good and bad - it started off badly, but now they're raving about him. It does not have an effect on us. We think that the public is smart enough to make up its own mind, and it has made up its own mind.
Kaplan Well, speaking of making up one's mind, you know Lorin Maazel has announced that he plans to step down as music director in 2009. What are your own plans? Will you retire then also?
Mehta No. That's not my plan now. I am now 67, and I hope I will be working full-time for another seven or eight years. But I don't know how I'm going to feel five years from now. It is not related to Lorin or to a change of guard, personally, one of the reasons I came to New York from a rather comfortable existence in Chicago was to help with making a new start in the hall. So I'm hopeful that the next four or five years, we can achieve that. Once that's done, and two or three years into that, I can see something happening. But I think it's wrong to leave an institution like New York the same time as an artistic director, a music director, because you have to have some continuity. So how can I go out in this next period, arrange for another conductor to come as music director here, and say, 'bye, bye,' you have to work with somebody else? People come because they want to be married to somebody. And I think that's important.
Kaplan All right. Well, that brings us to your final selection, which is one of the most remarkable pieces of chamber music, in this case by Schubert.
Mehta Well, I'd say it is one of the more remarkable pieces in creation. I got to know this piece, again with my father, when he was preparing it to perform it in Bombay. When I went to London, it was the first LP record I bought as a teenager, and it was the Amadeus Quartet with William Pleeth, who was the teacher of Jacqueline du Pré. And I played it and played it because it was the only record I had. I had two experiences of discussions about it later in life, as I got to know people. One was Isaac Stern, with whom at dinner one night after a concert I talked about this piece, and the fact that I had also bought the recording that he had made with Casals. And Isaac was talking about Casals talking about this piece, of having played it for Brahms. I mean, that really blows the mind when you think of that kind of lineage, and it's that what he got from Casals that he's passed on to the Yo-Yo Mas and the Manny Axes and so on today. Which is how this music stays alive. And the other person, funnily enough, was Rubenstein. Again, at a dinner once after a concert, somebody raised the question - I think there had been a funeral of somebody famous, and they played I forget what, and they turned to Arthur and said, 'what would you like at your funeral'? And he said without thinking, without waiting, the Adagio from the Schubert Quintet. And you know what? I agree with him.
Kaplan An excerpt from the Adagio of Schubert's Quintet in C major performed by Isaac Stern, Alexander Schneider, Milton Katims, Pablo Casals and Paul Tortelier. The final selection of my guest today on "Mad About Music," the president of the New York Philharmonic, Zarin Mehta. Now as we close, I would like to ask a final question, which I am sure you have given some thought about before. Do you regret giving in to your father and being denied a career as a performer in music, instead winding up in a managerial role, that you now play?
Mehta Well, that is a very easy question to answer, since I have never studied music and I don't play any instruments, and I assume I had no talent for it. You have to remember, growing up in India, my father as a professional musician, stopped Zubin and me from following this profession. With me, he succeeded, and fortunately, he didn't with Zubin. I didn't get into this until 1981. I'm an accountant by profession. That's what I went to London to study. And I'm delighted I shifted after 25 years of working as a chartered accountant into this. It's a crazy life, but it's fulfilling.
Kaplan Well, on that observation, may I thank you for appearing on "Mad About Music," today, Zarin Mehta. And for the fascinating insights you provided into the world of the symphony orchestra. This is Gilbert Kaplan for "Mad About Music."