Born April 29, 1936, in Bombay, India; son of Mehli Nowrowji (a violinist and conductor) and Tehmina Duruvala Mehta; married Carmen Lasky (divorced); married Nancy Kovack, 1969; children: (first marriage) Merwan (son), Zarina (daughter). Education: Attended St. Xavier's College, Bombay; Vienna Academy of Music, beginning in 1954; and Accademia Chigiana, Siena, Italy, late 1950s. Addresses: Office-- Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, P.O. Box 11292, 1 Huberman St., 61112 Tel Aviv, Israel.
Zubin Mehta is part of a group of conductors--one that includes Lorin Maazel, Seiji Ozawa, Claudio Abbado, Andre Previn, and Daniel Barenboim--that succeeded older luminaries such as George Szell, Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti, and Eugene Ormandy in carrying on the American orchestral tradition while infusing it with freshness and vitality. At a time when ticket sales and subscriptions are down, conductors who can woo audiences--and win admiration from orchestra boards--are as sought after as major league pitchers; Mehta's name appears on nearly every short list made when a new conductor search is launched.
Mehta was born in 1936 in Bombay, India. His father was a violinist and founder of the Bombay Symphony. He attended college with the intention of becoming a doctor, but his plans, perhaps in an instance of predestination, changed; he was quoted as saying in the New York Times, "My father used to train every section of his orchestra at home, and so I grew up with the orchestra as an instrument. I didn't have perfect pitch. I preferred playing cricket to practicing the piano. But by the time I was 18, I knew that I had to take up music."
In 1954, Mehta went to Vienna to study at the world-renowned Academy of Music. He took conducting instruction from Hans Swarowsky, a pupil of the composer Richard Strauss, and lessons on double bass from Otto Ruhm. Mehta also studied conducting in the late 1950s at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, Italy, first with Carlo Zecchi and later with Alceo Galliera.
He won first place in the Liverpool International Conductors' Competition in England in 1958; this brought him a one-year assistant conducting position there. By 1961, he had become music director of the Montreal Symphony in Canada, and in 1962, he took on a concurrent appointment with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Mehta turned both ensembles into first-class symphonies, raising ticket sales and visibility.
In 1978, Mehta began an engagement with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, considered by many the best ensemble of its kind in North America. When he took over the Philharmonic, critics and audiences were thrilled that a dynamic conductor known for his interpretations of late Romantic works would replace the ascetic, hyper-modern Pierre Boulez. "Under Mehta's spell," wrote Hubert Saal in Newsweek, "the Philharmonic has been born again."
Nonetheless, within two seasons critics began to carp--testimony, perhaps, to the notoriously fickle nature of symphony audiences and critics--and in 1985, Peter G. Davis remarked in New York magazine: "Does anyone care anymore? Mehta has few champions in the music press, and even his most vocal detractors, at one time a boisterous crew, have not had much to say recently.... Whatever controversy remains is carried on in a gray, listless fashion that reflects the kind of unimaginative programs and uneventful music-making heard too frequently these days in Avery Fisher Hall." When Mehta's second term with the Philharmonic expired in 1990, it was not renewed, and he was replaced by the German conductor Kurt Masur.
Mehta has weathered the rough tide of critical acclaim and rebuff with aplomb, always maintaining his good humor and professionalism. He is generally admired for his conducting technique, which is clear, precise, and without flamboyance, and for his deft handling of the often thorny politics of symphony orchestras--especially the demands of managers and board members. He is so beloved by the Israel Philharmonic, of which he has been music director since 1969, that he was appointed director for life in 1981.
The maestro lives in Israel with his second wife, Nancy Kovack, whom he married in 1969. He has two children from his first marriage--a son, Merwan, and a daughter, Zarina. He has won awards and citations from around the world, including numerous honorary degrees and the prestigious Commandre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government.
by Joyce Harrison
Zubin Mehta's Career
Held conductor posts in Yugoslavia, Belgium, and England, 1950s; music director, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, 1961-67, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, 1962-78, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, 1978-90, and Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, 1969--, appointed director for life, 1981; appeared as conductor at festivals of Spoleto, Vienna, Prague, Los Angeles, and Salzburg; made regular guest appearances with Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras; appeared as conductor with Montreal, Metropolitan, and Covent Garden opera companies. Conducted tenors Jose Carerras, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti in World Cup performance, Los Angeles, 1994.
Zubin Mehta's Awards
First place, Liverpool International Conductors' Competition, 1958; recipient of Padma Bhushan (India), Medaille d'Or Vermeil (Paris), and Commandre des Arts et des Lettres (France); honorary degrees from Tel Aviv University, Weizmann Institute of Science, Princeton University, Westminster Choir College, Hebrew University, Jewish Theological Seminary, Brooklyn College, and Colgate University.
- Selective Works
- (Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra; Miraculous Mandarin Suite Sony Classical, 1990.
- (Israel Philharmonic Orchestra; with pianist Radu Lupu) Beethoven: Concerto No. 1 in C Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 15; Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 19 London, 1990.
- (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, with pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy) Beethoven: Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 73 London, 1985.
- (New York Philharmonic Orchestra, with New York Choral Artists) Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 RCA, 1990.
- (New York Philharmonic Orchestra) Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D Major CBS, 1983.
- (New York Philharmonic Orchestra) Strauss: Ein Heldenleben; final scene of Salome, CBS, 1989.
- (New York Philharmonic Orchestra) Stravinsky: Petrouchka (complete ballet), CBS, 1980.
- Verdi: La Traviata Philips, 1993.
- Bookspan, Martin, and Ross Yockey, Zubin: The Zubin Mehta Story, Harper & Row, 1978.
- Periodicals Los Angeles Times, February 5, 1991.
- New York, January 14, 1985; June 10, 1991.
- New York Times, November 19, 1978.
- Newsweek, December 18, 1978.