Don't Argue with This Man on Cricket, Reagan or the Dodgers: Conductor Zubin Mehta Knows the Score

From the moment he steps up to the podium and lifts his baton, Zubin Mehta is the image of controlled tension. He crouches, pounces and stabs at the air with his arms. His face exhorts the orchestra with a series of continually changing masks, his black eyes dancing among the musicians. His flair for showmanship has earned him demerits from some critics, who do not encourage excess even in the rendering of such hyper-romantics as Strauss and Mahler. But to Mehta, every movement he makes has a purpose. “The conductor must think ahead and build toward an arc or a point of great intimacy,” he explains. “The musician is too busy. It’s like jumping with a horse over a fence. It’s the horse that is jumping, but you are holding the reins. Otherwise, you are going to fall on your head.”

In the swift, acutely vertical career of Zubin Mehta, there have been many perilous leaps and few falls. At 45, he is younger by decades than the survivors in the top rank of conductors—Solti of Chicago, von Karajan of Berlin—and at his best, bids to be their peer. His devotion to his art borders on obsession and his place in its hierarchy is unassailable. After a breathless summer in which he conducted no fewer than five orchestras in 15 cities from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, he has returned to his podium at the New York Philharmonic to launch its 140th season. It is Mehta’s fourth year as music director of the nation’s oldest orchestra—and his 12th as music director of the Israel Philharmonic, with which he usually spends three months of every year. He came to the prestigious New York job with 16 years’ experience as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic—and with a winning modesty. “I came to Los Angeles when I was only 26,” he says. “I made a lot of mistakes, and I learned from them. What I love about New York is that I am the head of a great orchestra. They are musicians who have played under such great conductors before me that I learn from their experience.”

Yet in matters of style he remains unreconstructedly himself, one of the few to have conducted an entire concert with one brown and one black sock peeking out from under his formal trousers. He is a devotee of the Dodgers, cricket, Yiddish jokes and Marx Brothers movies; he snacks continually on chili peppers and chocolate truffles. He holds his peeves as close as his enthusiasms—high among them the decision of President Reagan to cut arts funding in half. No matter that his wife of 12 years, former actress Nancy Kovack, has recently been named to a presidential task force on the arts and humanities: Mehta remembers Governor Reagan’s attitude toward the Los Angeles Philharmonic with some disdain, and last spring was lamenting, “In eight years he came to one concert. Culture in some parts of this country is considered almost a luxury of the elite. It is so wrong to think that. Don Giovanni will exist till the last flame goes out of this earth. What else will? If the President said, ‘Let’s not touch culture because that is what is most precious to us,’ maybe a few Midwestern Congressmen would call him a sissy. But I don’t think anyone else would shout.”

A native of Bombay, Mehta is no less outspoken on international politics, his interest inspired by broad travels (eight countries on three continents so far this year), fluency in seven languages and a voracious curiosity. During Israel’s Six-Day War in 1967, Mehta canceled his European appearances, jetted to Rome, contacted the Israeli ambassador and wangled passage on a munitions-transport plane bound for Tel Aviv. Once there, he visited military camps to boost morale and even helped drive soldiers between stations. He has escorted the Israel Philharmonic on a dozen foreign tours, and conducted their Berlin debut. Since 1966 he has refused to return to the Soviet Union until he is welcomed with the Israeli orchestra. Mehta also will not perform in South Africa. “I said to them, ‘Where would I stay as an Indian?’ They said, ‘Well, you would be an exception,’ and I replied, ‘Not until you allow the concert to be open [to Indians and blacks].’ They said they could not, since there were no bathroom facilities for nonwhites.”

Mehta’s sense of humanity was fostered early. As a child in India, Zubin (a Persian name meaning “the powerful sword”) belonged to the Parsi minority, descendants of Zoroastrian Persians who fled from religious persecution and settled in Bombay. “The world of sounds is my earliest memory,” he says. “I would wake up in the morning hearing my father teaching or giving a rehearsal.” Mehta Sr. founded the Bombay Symphony, and spent four years in New York studying violin with Ivan Galamian. He returned to Bombay with glorious tales of America. Zubin’s parents hoped their son would study medicine, and he tried for a year at a college in Bombay. “Every time I cut up a dogfish,” he recalls, “there was a Brahms symphony running through my head.” In 1954 he convinced his parents to send him to the Academy of Music in Vienna, where his musical concepts were shaped. “I was a pure Indian boy of 18 who had never heard a real symphony orchestra,” he remembers. “Imagine what it was like to hear the Beethoven Fifth for the first time by the Vienna Philharmonic.” To his colleagues he was “der lnder,” a talented but mischievous student. In 1958 Zubin married Carmen Lasky, a Canadian voice student who bore him two children, Zarina and Merwan, now 22 and 21.

Mehta’s first break as an ambitious young conductor came in that same year, when he won the Liverpool International Conductors’ Competition in England and moved there on a one-year contract as assistant conductor. He spent the following 12 months guest conducting in New York, Philadelphia, Berlin and Vienna—collecting critical raves and influential contacts. In 1961 the 24-year-old prodigy was named director of the Montreal Symphony when its conductor resigned. Later that year Los Angeles philanthropist Dorothy Chandler was so enchanted by Mehta’s performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic that she hired him as its music director.

By the time of his move to California in 1962 his marriage was over, and Mehta soon indulged himself as a prominent bachelor and darling of Los Angeles society. His wife, Carmen, who had stayed in Montreal with their children, later married Zubin’s younger brother Zarin, a partner in a Montreal accounting firm. By 1968 Mehta had met and fallen in love with Kovack, whom he married the next year, after an eight-month courtship, in a Parsi ceremony.

Nancy runs the couple’s hilltop villa in Los Angeles, their Manhattan town house and the family’s investments in California real estate. She is also a dutiful wife who prepares his favorite Indian entrees, keeps chocolate nibbles in the house and replaced their harsh doorbell with a recording of chirping birds to impose a peaceful ambience.

The illusion of peace is, alas, just that. On a typical high-gear day Mehta is up at 8. He skips breakfast and spends the morning studying scores, before taxiing across Central Park to Lincoln Center. For over two hours he rehearses his orchestra, dressed comfortably in a velour shirt (from Paris), shoes and slacks (from Italy) and socks (from Bloomingdale’s). Afterward, as he tries to maneuver his way to the elevator that carries him to a womblike studio (decorated in champagne tones at his own expense), he is intercepted almost immediately. First he referees a shouting match between an irate harpist and a timpanist, next he greets an auditioning musician, then he confers with management. Upstairs three soloists are waiting for a private rehearsal. When one repeatedly errs, Mehta shows little mercy. “Are you going to come in on cue or not? You must do it quicker because we can’t do it slower,” he admonishes.

He breaks to inhale a plateful of crab and eggs smothered in Tabasco sauce and washed down with mineral water (he drinks neither alcohol nor coffee), while his secretary, Kathy Mellon, reels off a list of messages and reminders. At 1:30 he is dressed for an afternoon subscription concert. Between bows he marches offstage to swab his face with a towel and gulp a glass of water. Outside his dressing room he dutifully mingles with a group of immaculately groomed ladies who have come to praise him. By 5 he has grabbed a Berlioz score and is racing homeward, reviewing cricket scores from the London Times in a cab ride he hasn’t enough cash to pay for. If Mehta does not have an evening concert or a dinner party, he is happiest at home, watching TV. “Monday night is my big free night,” he says with a grin. “You know what I do? Nothing.” If he is performing, Mehta is back at the concert hall by 7:30—and is not in bed until 2 a.m.

Such a tempo is not conducive to an unruffled marriage. The couple’s extensive global concert itinerary is occasionally relieved by vacations to such out-of-the-way corners as Bora Bora, the Galapagos islands and, last year, a trek by foot to the base of the Grand Canyon. Still, says Nancy, “I often wonder what I am doing here. It’s very different from what I imagined: a life in which a husband and wife sit and read books and occasionally go out. For us, every night is New Year’s Eve. I feel that music should be apart of life. The opposite is true with Zubin. His life, his love, his marriage are his work.” She pauses. “I’ve seen a lot of hard edges softened. But it has been very important not to try to change him, because that’s a comment that there is something wrong. And a person who has reached our age level and continues at this pace must love it. We are both here because we choose to be.”

For his part, Zubin vows to take more time off in the future: “Now that burning ambition is gone, I think this will be my last job,” he says of the New York Philharmonic, which he’s contracted to lead through 1986. “Nancy would not believe me, but I know I can slow down.”

Then he proudly unfurls his schedule for the 1981-82 season: “I will do The Messiah in Berlin for the first time in English, then Israel, Montreal, a week in Paris for my friend Danny [Barenboim], back in New York for our 10,000th concert. Next I tour America with the Israel Philharmonic. Then Vienna, and we plan to go to South America and….” Plainly it is no longer just adulation or money that propels him but simply his unquenchable passion for music. “Sometimes I don’t feel like playing,” he says, “but once you give the downbeat, it doesn’t matter—you’re in love. During a concert, if I have a cold, I don’t sneeze. Concerts are without telephone calls, without meetings, the only two hours when I’m not talking. It is heaven.”

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