On January 15th, 1961, a young conductor named Zubin Mehta arrived in
to rehearse the Los Angeles Philharmonic in preparation for a series of concerts. Mr. Mehta was almost completely unknown to orchestra or audience in Los Angeles . He had just been appointed music director designate for the Montreal Symphony, but who in Los Angeles had ever heard of the Montreal Symphony in 1961? Mehta’s appearance with the orchestra was the result of a cancellation by Fritz Reiner, who was supposed to have conducted. Los Angeles
At both rehearsals and concerts, the chemistry between conductor and orchestra was apparent from the start. The day after an especially successful concert, the orchestra administration offered Mr. Mehta the post of “associate conductor”. There have been many versions of the events that transpired next, but what eventually happened was that Georg Solti, the orchestra’s music director designate, was offended that he was not consulted about Mr. Mehta’s appointment, and resigned before he even began his tenure with the orchestra. Suddenly left without a music director, and seeing Mehta’s incredible success with both orchestra and audience, they offered the job to him instead. For the next 16 seasons, Mr. Mehta elevated the Los Angeles Philharmonic to a world class orchestra, with successful concerts throughout the musical world and recordings that still remained cherished items among music lovers.
This past weekend, the Los Angeles Philharmonic celebrated the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Mr. Mehta’s tenure as music director of the orchestra. The programme was a re-creation of the concert he conducted as music director – the Busoni version of Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni, which incorporates the use of trombones as well as music from the end of the opera, Hindemith’s Mathis der Mahler Symphony, and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7. It is a serious programme, certainly far from the “showy” pieces Mr. Mehta has been accused of favouring.
Mr. Mehta’s 16-year tenure with the orchestra was not all smooth sailing. Despite his chemistry with the orchestra and popularity with audience, he would, for years, receive scathing reviews from the Los Angeles Times and its chief critic, Martin Bernheimer, who seemed to have devoted much of his career to (unsuccessfully) destroying Mr. Mehta’s reputation. Indeed, in his younger days, Zubin Mehta did not seem to have much luck with the critics, the main complaints being the conductor’s apparent superficiality, a lack of discipline and “depth” in his interpretations. I remember one reviewer, praising the conductor’s recording of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, adding that, “Alas, he is good for nothing else.” Such a statement is not only an insult to Mr. Mehta’s talents, but also disparaging towards the music of Liszt.
I have had the good fortune to hear Mr. Mehta in person on several occasions. In those occasions, and in listening to the conductor’s many recordings, I find the complaints from the gentlemen of the press entirely unjustified.
Is Zubin Mehta a great conductor? Certainly. Is he the “greatest”? I do not know, because I do not know what the word means. From listening to his music making, I can only say that Mr. Mehta is a hugely talented and extremely serious musician. Yes, he did conduct the by now famous “Three Tenors” concert, but then so did James Levine, whose reputation did not seem to have suffered from such an association.
In recent years, critics seem to have been kinder, at least fairer, to Mr. Mehta. Perhaps he will now receive what he has always deserved, to be judged by the merits of each performance, and not by the preconceived and malicious stereotypes.
Rather than relying on the words of the “distinguished” critics of the Times, maybe we could end by recalling the words of Arthur Rubinstein, who said, “Some of my most joyous and inspired performances have been in collaboration with Zubin Mehta.”
Endorsement indeed, coming from a pianist who had probably played with most of the greatest conductors of the 20th century.