Even at 82 years old, famed maestro Zubin Mehta conducts with the same vigor and passion that have brought him worldwide fame. Last year, Mehta announced his plans to step down as music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, a post he’s held for 40 years. He sat down with CBS News’ Jamie Wax ahead of one of his final U.S. concerts with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to talk about his six decades of conducting.
Zubin Mehta was born into music. His father was the founder of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra in India.
“I heard music in my home before I spoke. So I don’t remember whether I sang first or spoke Gujarati, my mother tongue. And I went to a Jesuit school in Bombay where all the teachers and priests were fans of my father. So they would ask me for tickets for his concerts,” Mehta said.
Mehta left Bombay to study music in Vienna and by just 21, was filling in for maestros around the world. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s he would conduct the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. In the 1980s, he served as music director for the New York Philharmonic and was named music director for life of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Despite posts all over the globe, he said he never experienced prejudice for being from India.
“One of the great things about playing with Zubin is that you’re not just playing with somebody who is a wonderful conductor, but you’re also playing with somebody who is a personal friend,” said internationally-acclaimed violinist Itzhak Perlman. who first played for Mehta in his early 20s. “I’ve never seen such energy before.”
Perlman estimates he’s played for Mehta more than any conductor in the world.
“You know, there are many conductors who are fine musicians and so on and so forth, but that little – that little element which is the communication between the musician and the conductor sometimes is missing… And then you have somebody like Zubin, you know, he goes in and he just goes like that and it catches you.”
Over his six decades of conducting, Mehta has received accolades ranging from a Kennedy Center honor to a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But his proudest accomplishment has to do with his time at the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, a post he held for 40 years.
“The Israel Philharmonic is like no other orchestra today in the sense that they live through crises, political crises, every few years. And it makes no difference to their work schedule. Public comes, as usual. The last crisis we had was when Hamas would throw regular bombs on Tel Aviv… Not one concert was canceled. Public came every evening. And when sirens went off, we stopped, then we went on again.”
Mehta remembers taking the orchestra to India when diplomatic relations between the countries were restored 25 years after the 1967 war.
“With Itzhak Perlman. The orchestra played without any fee, nor did Itzhak receive anything. And for me, it was a kind of culmination to take my orchestra to my country,” Mehta said.
Mehta is a living example of music’s unique capacity to bring countries and cultures together.
“Don’t ever underestimate the power of music in general. I’m not talking only of classical music… People are listening to music all the time and it does make a big difference. Just imagine a world without all this. Impossible.”