On October 20 at 2 p.m. Zubin Mehta passed through a door and stepped onto the stage of The Lowy Concert Hall in Tel Aviv. Instantly the capacity crowd rose in a standing ovation. He hadn’t yet conducted a note.
Slowly, with a cane, he made his way to centre stage, the ovation becoming more intense with every step he took.
He reached the podium. He bowed to the crowd that wanted to continue clapping but he climbed the steps, circled his hands and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, “HaPhilharmonit”, under a huge banner THANK YOU MAESTRO MEHTA, began HaTikvah.
This very same scenario had taken place at the previous eight concerts starting on October 3. I attended one of these as well. Zubin Mehta first conducted HaPhilharmonit in 1961, substituting for the legendary Eugene Ormandy. In 1969 he was appointed Music Advisor, Music Director in 1977 and Music Director for Life in 1981. At age 83 he was retiring. These nine would be his last in that capacity.
The concert started with Yefim Bronfman as the soloist in Franz Liszt’s 2nd Piano Concerto. For an encore he and the new music director, Lahav Shani, played Dvorak Slavonic Dance opus 72 no. 2 for four hands on the same piano.
After the intermission former television news reader, Dalia Mazor, delivered a speech thanking Mehta who, she pointed out, had conducted over 3000 concerts, 1000 of them abroad. She appointed him to the newly created post of Music Director Emeritus, gave him a certificate and expressed the hope that he would return to conduct.
Mehta said that in fifty years much had been accomplished but one thing he had hoped to accomplish he didn’t: he hadn’t learned to speak Hebrew. “ Ani mevakesh selicha.”
He wished Shani much success. He called the orchestra the world’s first post Austro- Hungarian orchestra and I remembered a Time Magazine article on the orchestra that I had read perhaps forty years ago in which he said conducting it was different from conducting any other orchestra. In Israel every rehearsal involved an argument with players believing that the way they had played it in Poland or wherever was the only right way. “From my heart, what this orchestra has given me, not only this one but all the generations before them…I cannot begin to even describe what I have learned from these musicians.” He said he was feeling many emotions which he probably would not be able to sort out until he was on his plane to Los Angeles that night and could discuss them with his wife.
The orchestra members were having a tough time. This could be the last time he or she would play under Mehta’s baton. Flutist and Principal Piccolo, Lior Eitan told me: “In the last few days everyone was chasing him to take a photo. I just wanted to post a picture of the two of us on my Facebook page with the words: Thank you, Maestro.’ ”
Both he and Assistant Principal Bassoon Uzi Shalev describe Mehta as anav ( humble.) “All his fame and all his glory, it has not gone to his head. He has remained modest,” said Shalev. “When you talk to him he’s a mensch. You don’t feel he puts himself above you”, said Eitan. He is like a father to all of us.”
Each considered Mehta the equal of Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Masur (who, like Mehta, were music directors of the New York Philharmonic) or any of the other greats who returned to conduct HaPhilharmonit over the three decades they have been playing in it. What makes him so great? “His charisma”, each answered in separate interviews without hesitation.
Each believes there is no conductor in the world who has Mehta’s sensitivity to soloists. “He has perfect timing. ” He brings the orchestra in after a solo with perfection. That is why he is in such demand as an opera conductor,” said Shalev. He wants us to look at his eyes and feel him and he looks at ours to feel us. We know the music almost by heart so mostly we watch him. When we play a concerto he can tell if a soloist is about to depart from the nuances we rehearsed even before the soloist knows it and he will signal us it is about to occur and to follow where the soloist will take us. In rehearsal he will sometimes say to a player carrying the main line: ‘O.K. I’ll follow your lead.’ “
The final piece was Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, “ Resurrection”, with soloists Chen Reiss and Okka van der Damerau and two choirs. Its last movement is the greatest human artistic achievement I have ever come across in any medium. (Full disclosure: I have only encountered a billionth of what there is or has disappeared.) No matter how often I hear it each time its brilliance overwhelms me as if it were my first time when I was 13 years old (my first time hearing the symphony, that is.) When it is well played I have tears in my eyes. This time I was choked up by the time the choirs rose.
The performance extracted from the notes all the beauty and intensity they could yield. Mehta managed to communicate to the artists with arm movement, facial expression and mouthing words, sitting on a stool. Some conductors, like the Toronto Symphony’s Conductor Emeritus, Peter Oundjian, perform a podium pantomime, as if the quality of the conducting is to be judged by the creativity of the dance. Mehta’s brilliant renditions show how unnecessary that is.
The performance over, a thunderstorm of applause behind him, Mehta bowed his head, crossed his hands over his chest and then gestured to the orchestra and choir in gratitude for at least thirty seconds before turning to the audience. Was he telling them they had created this moment in time together? Thanking the orchestra for the last fifty years? Avi Shoshani, HaPhilharmonit’s general secretary for 45 years, placed a garland wreath around Mehta’s neck. This was the signal for two hundred or so players and choristers to produce stemmed roses and begin waving them. There were a number of curtain calls. Mehta moved among the front row players shaking hands.
But it had to end. It was erev Simchat Torah. Buses would soon stop running. People had to daven mincha ma’ariv. The clapping continuing, the musicians left their seats. Not leading them but among them and as one of them, the non Israeli who more than anyone had shown the world the height to which the culture of Israel can soar, exited stage left.
A video of HaPhilharmonit’s last performance of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony under Zubin Mehta as Music Director for Life is available to subscribers of medici.tv