The Kennedy Center

Zubin Mehta


While Zubin Mehta was still in his teens, his teacher, the venerable Hans Swarowsky, called him "a born conductor." Years later in 1981, the year Mehta was named Music Director for Life of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Harold C. Schonberg wrote in The New York Times that "his beat must be an orchestra player's delight. It is almost textbook in its motions, moving in fairly large arcs in an unfussy manner…. There is something Toscaninian in Mr. Mehta's beat." And yet there always has been something more than the control of even the great Toscanini in Mehta's conducting. Mehta's passion on the podium is all his own. His musical integrity is legend, and his love of freedom is as great as his love of music.

"It is not politics," Mehta has said, "it is humanity. I don't campaign for anybody." He makes sublime music for everybody, often carrying it where it is most needed: from the ruins of the Bosnian National Library in war-torn Sarajevo to Tel Aviv during the Gulf War, in Moscow's Gorky Park during the twilight of the Soviet era, in India with his Israeli musicians breaking a decades-long absence of cultural dialogue and diplomatic ties. In 1999, Mehta's passion brought together for the first time the Israel Philharmonic and the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra for a historic performance of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony No. 2 in what had been a concentration camp in Weimar. Mehta has spread the sheer sensual joy of great music from American coast to coast at the helm of the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and also at festival time in Florence, and through season after glorious season in his home theater in Munich. Mehta led the Three Tenors Concerts in Rome and Los Angeles. Together with his friends and fellow soccer fans José Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, he created the most wildly sensational classical music success story of our time. Always a showman but also indefatigably a servant of the score, Mehta has a rich and growing discography that attests to the breadth of his musical genius.

While Zubin Mehta, who is Parsee by heritage and Indian by birth, currently resides in Los Angeles, he was born in Bombay—now called Mumbai-in 1936. He grew up in a time of national strife, of India's hard-won independence but also of the painful partition and birth of Pakistan, of Gandhi's assassination and its aftermath, a time of fragile peace. He received his musical early education from his father Mehli Mehta, violinist and co-founder of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra and later music director of the American Youth Symphony in Los Angeles. His younger brother Zarin Mehta is today executive director of the New York Philharmonic. Neither Zarin nor Zubin set out originally for careers in music, however, and young Zubin in fact began training in medicine. After only two semesters of medical school, Zubin Mehta launched into music in earnest, studying conducting with Swarowsky at the Music Academy in Vienna. Zubin Mehta won the Liverpool International Conducting Competition in 1958, shortly afterwards also winning the Koussevitzky Competition in Tanglewood. By his mid-20s, Mehta already had conducted both the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic.

His rise in the music world was swift. Zubin Mehta was music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra from 1961 to 1967. In 1962 he became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a position he held until 1978 and a relation he still holds dear: in 2006, after a Philharmonic concert in the new Disney Hall where Mehta received a special award from the city of Los Angeles, Mark Swed wrote in the Los Angeles Times that "something strong and evidently indestructible runs deep between him and this community."

In 1969, Mehta was named Music Advisor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, where he became Music Director in 1978. In 1981, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra bestowed on Mehta the unique accolade of making him Music Director for Life. So far he has conducted more than 2,000 performances with these extraordinary musicians on landmark tours across five continents. In 1978, Mehta became Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, where his 13-year tenure would become the longest in the orchestra's history. Since 1985, he has been revitalizing opera as chief conductor of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. This year he completes his tenure as music director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, where his operatic triumphs are legend.

Mehta made his operatic debut in Puccini's Tosca in Montreal in 1964. Bringing to the stage the same intensity, truth and passion that he inevitably summons in the concert hall, Mehta's operatic careers has followed a similar trailblazing path: He has led major productions at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Vienna State Opera, the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, at Milan's La Scala and at the Salzburg Festival, as well as in the major houses and festivals in Montreal, Chicago and Florence. Mehta's recordings form a living panorama of the best music-making of this or any other era. There have been intensely personal live and studio performances of the classics of the canon, of Mozart and Beethoven, of Brahms, Berlioz and Mahler. Among his many operatic recordings are several that count among the finest of all time, including a stellar version of Turandot that marked the first time both Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti took the leading roles in Puccini's late masterpiece. A second Turandot recording acts as a souvenir of Mehta's historic performance of the opera in China's Forbidden City.

This year saw the publication in Germany of Zubin Mehta's autobiography, Die Partitur meines Leben: Erinnerungen (The Score of my Life: Memories). The memories are many, the life remarkable. "It all comes from the music, "Mehta has said. "I do whatever the music demands. What is conducting? Conducting is communication. And what I communicate at the moment is what I feel and what my musicians need."

Updated September 6, 2006
Zubin Mehta