Zubin Mehta takes the Israel Philharmonic to town

Zubin Mehta. ()
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A couple of weeks ago, at the end end of a long workday in Israel, where he is the music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta was speaking by phone from his hotel room, sounding exhausted and hoarse.

But as he spoke, about the state of classical music, his programming, his family, he seemed to rouse himself, and he began slowly to unveil charm and wit, laughing as he described the always precarious state of his orchestra's budget. "We have never felt comfortable," he said. "The recession hasn't touched us because even before the recession we had no money. The government gives us about eight percent of our budget and doesn't give any tax deductibility to individual donors, so we rely on box office and the rest we go around the world begging for. And we have wonderful friends in America and Europe. Especially in America. The American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic, we wouldn't exist without them."

In other words, Mehta spends much of his time with the orchestra on tour. (His current arrangement brings him to Israel itself only three times a season, but he is also bringing the orchestra on three major tours this year.) In 2011 there are two particularly special occasions to celebrate: it's the orchestra's 75th anniversary, and the 50th anniversary of Mehta's 1961 debut with them. Then just 25 years old, the same age as the young ensemble, Mehta filled in for an indisposed Eugene Ormandy; 16 years later he was appointed music director, and in 1981 named Music Director for Life.

Last night, a few hours after he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he and the orchestra completed a ten-day, seven-city U.S. tour in Los Angeles, after making stops in Florida, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco (following, not coincidentally, the far-flung American Jewish diaspora). At Carnegie Hall last week they played a program of works by Liszt, Mahler, and the Israeli composer Avner Dorman. In the Times, Steve Smith praised their "commendably artful traversal" of Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2 with a favorite soloist, Yefim Bronfman, and their "passionate and assured account" of Mahler's Fifth Symphony.

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"Avner Dorman's Azerbaijani Dance is a fun piece written by a young composer who's very talented," Mehta said. "He wrote it for piano and we asked him to orchestrate it. It's very catchy, very rhythmically potent, and we have percussion players from that region who can do justice to it.

Apart from that, it's all centered around Vienna. On the tour we play Haydn, Schubert, Liszt, Mahler, and Webern. That's a very good Viennese picture. From this we are playing in New York, we start with the Israeli piece and play Liszt and Mahler Five, which we haven't done in New York in ages. The Schubert symphony I did with the Vienna Philharmonic in New York a few years ago so I couldn't repeat that."

The city will always be something of a homecoming for Mehta, even though he's had one of the most dizzyingly peripatetic careers in classical music. In the wake of Pierre Boulez's bracingly experimental tenure at the New York Philharmonic in the 1970s, Mehta became the orchestra's music director in 1978 and served until 1991, pulling back from Boulez's relentless experimentation and giving a stability that could sometimes seem like stodginess. (Or a little middlebrow: in 1990 Mehta conducted the initial concert in the infamous series of Three Tenors concerts.)

Suave and funny, he is famous as a brilliant fundraiser—the Carnegie concert was followed by a benefit dinner at the Plaza and the other concerts on the tour also featured pricey galas—which was crucial in his American posts and in Israel, but is increasingly a factor in Europe, which has seen cutbacks in its traditional government arts subsidies.

"In America," he said, "the government takes no part in supporting culture, except you have your little Washington what-is-it-called, the National Endowment. I know that it exists and it's a healthy organization, but they give peanuts to the big organizations and you yourself said smaller orchestras are folding up now, which is terrible. In Europe governments are decreasing their support but they still give a lot. We complain in Italy that they are giving less and less but they give fifty percent of our budget. It's not bad. The thing is, the problem in Europe and Israel that you don't have in America is they have no tax deductibility. So the problem is that in spite of government support the rest of the fifty percent, if it doesn't come in from the box office, which it can't, it's very hard to get even the remaining twenty percent if there's no incentive to give because of the tax deductibility.

"We are trying to convince the European governments but nobody's budging. In Germany they give the major industrial donors some benefit, but individuals hardly ever. People are very large-hearted. They are giving, just they are giving less because of your economic problems. Let's say you have a major donor. His first or her first priority is hospitals, or education. Culture comes at the end, from my experience at least. Right? The same thing happens in Europe, too. Except in Europe they just don't give too much. It's not tradition. Because the governments have always taken care of everything. And now the governments are saying you have to do it yourself but you can't because of the lack of tax deductibility. It's a catch-22."

Mehta, whose conducting is flamboyant and sweaty, has always had a taste for grandly high-concept performances, from a live broadcast of Tosca filmed in the libretto's indicated locations in Rome to the Mozart Requiem in the ruins of Sarajevo in 1994 to Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony near Buchenwald in 1999. He and the Israel Philharmonic toured his native India in 1994—though, as he said, "you can't compare the classical music surge in India to the Internet surge"—and in 1998 he collaborated on a version of Puccini's Turandot staged in the Forbidden City in Beijing.

As always, the savvy Mehta goes where the interest and donors are, and he and the Israel Philharmonic did a tour of Asia in November. He agreed that the rise there in interest in traditional Western classical music is comparable to 19th-century America looking towards Europe for a cultural model.

"We are depending heavily on Asia," he said. "We certainly get a lot of invitations to go to China. I'm going there for the second time this season. I went in the fall with the Israel Philharmonic and I'm going with my Florence orchestra. They are building one concert hall after the other. Every month I hear about another concert hall openings. They already have three theaters in Shanghai. A beautiful new opera house in Beijing. Western music is extremely popular there. They don't really have their own music that they cling to. India has its own music. In China and Japan you don't have that. I mean, you have the national opera where it's mostly acrobats and all that, but if you ask the Japanese about their classical music they don't really know it too well. So they absorb the Western culture because there's a vacuum there. Tokyo has about ten professional orchestras."

Despite their lack of support from the Israeli government (eight percent!), the Israel Philharmonic is still seen by some as perhaps the most visible example of the country's cultural diplomacy, or at least as complicit with the country's policies, and the Carnegie concert last week attracted a small but loud protest outside the hall. Artists have sometimes avoided working with the orchestra, for a variety of reasons.

"If they are political reasons they don't tell us," Mehta said, laughing, "they just don't come. Some don't come because we can't pay them high fees, and some are just plain afraid. So we have three categories of performers who won't come to Israel. But believe me, if you see our roster of next season, it's good. We have wonderful artists who come. Next season there's Christoph von Dohnanyi, Riccardo Muti, Kurt Masur, a lot of young conductors, Israeli conductors, Itzhak Perlman comes every couple of years, of course Pinchas Zuckerman, Daniel Barenboim. We have a very potent season, we're not starving for artists."