Zubin Mehta’s long and adventurous life with the focus on four cities

“The 85-year-old Maestro came out to the stage with a cane and you could see him happy and inspired by what was coming (or maybe by those who have come?). One way or another, once the long welcoming applause faded, he didn’t need a cane anymore, he didn’t even need to walk. There, on stage, he was flying. And he easily took the whole large orchestra and his audience with him.”

This is how a reviewer of recalled the concert of Zubin Mehta and the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in late May, which was one of the first musical events in Florence in the post-pandemic world. Zubin Mehta used to be the director of this orchestra between 1985 and 2017, and he has been an honorary life conductor since 2007. Although he gave the stick to a younger colleague, he still passionately brings the group to guest concerts all around the world, like Budapest in mid-August. There are ten ensembles on Earth that honoured the Maestro with a honorary, lifelong, or emeritus conductor-director position, not to mention his honorary citizenships in various cities. Let’s see where, when and how he has been conducting and what kind of adventures he has been through…

Bombay – the birthplace

Zubin Mehta was born in Bombay, British India, in 1936. His family is parsi (just like, for instance, Freddy Mercury’s or Indira Gandhi’s husband’s). He was destined for his musical career, as his father Mehli Mehta, a great violinist and conductor, founded the Bombay Symphonic Orchestra and the Bombay String Quartet. He started to teach his sons, too: the older one, Zubin, became a conductor himself, and the younger, Zarin, became am arts executive, leader of many huge arts institutions throughout the years. The two sons have been travelling around the world, but their never forgot their roots – that is why they founded the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation, which has helped hundreds of Indian children to get to know Western classical music.

Vienna – the centre of the world

“In my early life, everything was in Vienna […]: my first opera, my first symphony, the first orchestra that I heard live was the Vienna Philharmonic, which is not bad. I didn’t hear a second-class orchestra in a province and then come to Vienna later, I didn’t have that transition.”

(Zubin Mehta)

The subsequent Maestro started some pre-medical studies in Bombay, but soon he left it to concentrate solely on music. He moved to Vienna in 1954 where he studied conducting at the University of Music. He was very fond of Gustav Mahler’s music, to the point of visiting Bruno Walter (whose Viennese Mahler recordings were an important memory from his childhood in Bombay), and even the old Alma Mahler, in the USA. Latter showed him works by Kokoschka és Gropius on the wall, and told him a few secrets about her life with Gustav Mahler – in thick Viennese accent, of course.

Mehta is also close to pianist Rudolf Buchbinder with whom he will play in the Müpa soon. In the last decades, they have been playing a lot together. Buchbinder also witnessed one of the most ambivalent, most emotional breakups of music history, too…

Rudolf Buchbinder, Zubin Mehta and cellist Mischa Maisky in 2019 as part of Mehta’s farewell concert series with the IPO.

Tel Aviv – an ambivalent relationship

After Vienna opened the doors for Zubin Mehta, soon he won prizes all over Europe, gave many concerts in the England and Germany, and in 1961, his long-term work with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) started. First, according to his own testimony, he did not really understand much of the political situation of the country. But the more he lived there, the more he got involved, like when he secured free concerts and scholarships for Israeli Arab children, similarly to his Indian programme.

Meanwhile he took IPO to national and international concerts, but sometimes their show was boycotted due to political reasons. But Mehta was there “only” to make music, wasn’t he…? As time went by, Mehta started to criticise Netanjahu’s government more and more, and at one point in 2019 he decided to leave the country behind.

Still, a half century long relationship with the IPO could not be ended easily. No surprise that the internet is full with emotional interviews, reviews and videos from his last days there. The city of Tel Aviv, despite any political criticism, still awarded an honorary citizenship to the master, and IPO considers him a conductor emeritus.

Florence – the great love

Another cornerstone of Mehta’s life is the above-mentioned Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Of course, he is an honorary citizen of Florence, too, and he opened the new opera house in 2011, making a 40-year-long dream true. Nowadays, when music is slowly coming back to open-space venues after the pandemic, they chose a very stylish place for their return…

Zubin Mehta and the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Athens in June 2021. (c) Florence Daily News.

The Acropolis Theatre in Athens – where they played Brahms and Beethoven with Buchbinder, just like they will do in Hungary soon.

Zubin Mehta has a multidimensional life in the end. Measured in years, it is long. Measured in geographic places, it is wide. And how can we measure its depth? In lovely musical pieces, breathtakingly cathartic moments, and wall-shaking applauses.