His life’s work: Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic

The Jews of Palestine had an orchestra before they had a state. In 1936, the Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman assembled a crew of mostly German refugees who arrived in the sparsely populated desert carrying instruments, wearing heavy suits and nurturing memories of gilt-and-stucco concert halls. The Nazis helped strengthen the ensemble by throwing so many talented musicians out of work. In 1948, when Israel declared its independence, the Palestine Orchestra became the Israel Philharmonic.

The saga is told in vivid tableaux: Leonard Bernstein conducting the orchestra for an audience of battle-begrimed soldiers in the Negev in 1948; Bernstein, again, on the slopes of Mount Scopus in 1967 at the end of the Six Day War; Zubin Mehta on the podium during the Scud missile attacks in 1991, performing for an audience in gas masks. No other orchestra in the world has been so molded by emergency.

Reaching twin milestones: The Israel Philharmonic just turned 70, the same age as Mehta, who first conducted the orchestra when they were both 25. He became music director eight years later, then in 1981 was appointed music director for life. Meanwhile, he found time to take over the podium of the New York Philharmonic, and remain there for 13 years, from 1978 until 1991.

Of his lifetime appointment, he says, ‘That’s an honor, not a contract. Every five or six years, I ask the orchestra, ‘Is there any change you want to make?”

So far, the answer has always been no. On Tuesday and Thursday at Carnegie Hall, Mehta and his orchestra begin a celebratory tour of the United States.

The group has changed, along with the country, and Mehta is fighting a rearguard battle to keep demographic trends from affecting aesthetic traditions. ‘When I took over, it was still an orchestra of the Hapsburg Empire,’ he says. ‘We had Poles, Hungarians and Austrians, as well as Sabras — Israelis born in Israel. Most people spoke German.

‘Now it’s an orchestra of the ex-Soviet empire: Russians, Latvians, Lithuanians. They come with different schooling. Stylistically, they’re in a completely different world. My task has been to maintain that warm Central European sound that the strings had before. It’s a constant effort to make them play mellow.’

The ironies are dizzying: A Bombay-born conductor, who trained in Vienna and lives in Los Angeles, remarking on the problematic diversity of an orchestra that is almost entirely Jewish. Then, too, Mehta is trying to preserve the sound of the very orchestras that expelled the Philharmonic’s founders.

A part of Israel: Today, Mehta is so deeply identified with Israel that it’s easy to forget that he is not Jewish. ‘He is not a guest or a visitor anymore,’ says Zeev Dorman, a bassoonist who has chaired the orchestra’s executive committee for a decade. ‘Ask any taxi driver in Israel who is Zubin Mehta, and he will tell you.’

But when a teenage Mehta arrived in Vienna in the 1950s, he was an exotic specimen in a city so nativist that, as he recalls, even a musician from Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg was considered foreign. Nevertheless, he became so zealously Viennese that he has been conducting that city’s venerable philharmonic orchestra even longer than he has been conducting Israel’s.

Both groups are symbols that have difficulty keeping up with the world around them. The Vienna Philharmonic represents an insular city proud of its separateness, which is why its members are overwhelmingly male and local. The Israel Philharmonic represents the high-cultural heritage of a nation that grows ever more fragmented, polyglot and polarized.

‘In Israel you have left and right, religious and non-religious, white and black, Jews from Europe and from the Arabic countries. The orchestra is regarded as a flagship of the whole country, but in fact it represents only the Ashkenazi part of Israel,’ Mehta says.

To illustrate the divide, Mehta describes going with Isaac Stern’s wife, Vera, to a movie about the night during World War II when Nazis rounded up French Jews, including her father, for deportation. ‘There were a lot of Yemenite Jews in the theater, and they were all shouting and joking. Vera was shocked. She said: ‘Is this my Israel?’ I don’t see that part of Israel much, because Yemenites don’t come to our concerts. They sing Indian movie songs.’

And so, as Israel evolves, the Israel Philharmonic keeps turning for its identity to those ever more distant sources in Central Europe and the Holocaust. ‘The way we play a Mahler symphony, we have a touch nobody else can achieve,’ Dorman says. ‘In his music you can hear the suffering of the Jewish people. Other orchestras can’t deliver that message.’

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