Conductor  Zubin  Mehta
(ज़ुबिन मेहता)

Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie


Zubin Mehta is one of the world`s leading conductors. He is a vivid symbol of today`s cross-cultural world and a living proof of the power of music to bridge different cultures and to break social and political barriers.

His tremendous sense of social responsibility has taken his music from India to Buchenwald - from Sarajevo to the Palestinian territories. He has sought to develop the universal appeal of music and through it to bring peace and comfort to all areas of the world.

His contribution to today`s music world is so valuable, that it can be said that he is one of its main "designers". Not only was he music director of some of the world`s leading orchestras/opera houses, encompassing three continents (New York, Los Angeles, Montreal, Munich, Florence, Israel) and 50 years of constant, highly intensive activity; but most probably he is the music director, who has given more opportunities for young artists (soloists, conductors, composers) in debut performances, than any other figure of his stature.

Mehta was born in Bombay, India, into a Parsee family in April 1936, the son of Mehli Mehta who founded the Bombay Symphony Orchestra and who was a violinist and his wife Tehmina Mehta.

At the age of 18 Zubin Mehta moved to Vienna to study conducting with the eminent teacher Hans Swarovsky. At the age of 22, four years after his arrival in Vienna he made his conducting debut and the same year he won the International Conducting Competition in Liverpool and shortly thereafter the Koussevitsky competition in Tanglewood. Zubin's early success led him to be appointed assistant conductor and then Music Director of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Still only in his twenties, he had already conducted the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic - two of the greatest orchestras in the world.

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra appointed Mr. Mehta Music Advisor in 1969, Music Director in 1977, and Music Director for Life in 1981. Since 1986, he has also acted as Music Advisor and Chief Conductor of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the summer festival in Florence, Italy

For more information about Zubin Mehta, visit his official website.

In the early 1990s, Mehta was in Chicago each year to conduct a new production of The Ring with Lyric Opera of Chicago.  There was one opera per year for three seasons, then in the fourth season was the fourth opera plus complete cycles.  In 1993 and 1996, the conductor took time from his very busy schedule to speak with me.  The conversations ranged far and wide in the musical realm, and we begin with that first interview . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You conduct both concerts and opera.  Aside from the obvious, what are the differences between conducting a symphony and conducting an opera?

Zubin Mehta:    Shall I say the obvious is first?  No singers in the symphony!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Is that good or bad?

ZM:    The way I meant it now, it’s good!

BD:    Of course, there must be then a third option because you have oratorios and Beethoven Ninths and other concert things with singers.

mehta ZM:    Yes, but those are not the singers I meant.  It shouldn’t sound that derogatory because we have singers of such fine quality today.  I’m talking about from the musical standpoint, because there have been always great voices.  There’s never been a generation without great voices.

BD:    Are the great voices today comparable to the great voices of yesterday?

ZM:    Voice-wise, yes, and in some cases they are even better musicians.  So, from the conductor’s point of view, especially in Italy, it’s becoming a blessing.  The new Italian singers are so well trained musically that it’s a pleasure, especially in the Mozart category.

BD:    Is this because the American singers have always been known as having the great training?

ZM:    Yes, very good preparation; German singers, too.  But even amongst American and Germans you have the odd maverick.  [Both laugh]

BD:    The odd maverick good, and the odd maverick bad?

ZM:    Yes and yes.  No, the basic standard is quite high.  As usual, we have a dearth of Heldentenors, of Tristans.  We find one a generation almost.  So that’s always lacking and always has lacked, because it’s obviously a throat sickness [laughs] to be able to sing Siegfried and Tristan.

BD:    And to be able to sing it more than once!

ZM:    Yes, sure!

BD:    I would assume that most tenors could get through it once, and then that would be the end of their career.

ZM:    It depends on also which conductors they sing it with.  Conductors have to nurture these voices and help them from the pit, and not suffocate them.

BD:    I assume then you’re conscious of this every moment that you’re standing in the pit?

ZM:    All the time.  We have to be.

BD:    Are you, as the conductor, really in the best place to balance, being right in front of the orchestra and away from the singers?

ZM:    That depends on the opera house
sometimes yes; sometimes not.  [Both laugh]  In the Vienna Opera for instance, the pit is so high that we get such a blast from the orchestra, which is of course the Vienna Philharmonic, it’s very tempting not to tell them to play out that much because it sounds so beautiful.  But we have to!  Otherwise, we don’t hear the stage and the audience surely doesn’t hear them.  At the Lyric Opera here, the balance situation is ideal because the orchestra at times is even too weak from the acoustic point of view.

BD:    So you let them play out?

ZM:    Oh, yes!  The strings, mostly.  I like the strings to play out here.

BD:    Some people are talking about perhaps using throat microphones to sweeten the sound of the voice just a little.  Do you ever want to get involved in this idea?

ZM:    Then there is no limit.  One doesn’t like being a purist for the sake of being a conservative, but when you start with that, then there’ll always be a singer who’ll bring it up a notch and bring it down, and then you’ll have to say, “During the second act finale of Aïda, I want more,” but then it’s like doing a record production and I think that’s too dangerous.

BD:    Since you have brought it up, let me ask about recordings.  Do you conduct the same in the recording studio as you do in the concert hall or the opera house?

ZM:    Almost.  Yes.  Whether I’m doing opera or symphony, I like to balance myself.  I grew up with a two-track recording system with Decca/London Records, even though multi-track was very fashionable in the sixties already.  Karajan used to take the tapes home and play around with them, with the result you could never really perform the way some of his recordings sound because it’s unnatural from that point of view, not from playing or interpretation.  The tempo was always, let’s say, his tempo.  That you can’t argue with, but some of the balances were completely irrational, and you couldn’t play with that much clarity, or that soft or that loud, etcetera.

BD:    Does it become a fraud then, or just a different art form?

ZM:    It is some sort of fraud because that can’t be reproduced on the stage.

BD:    But you don’t think the recording medium is a different art form?

ZM:    No.  I don’t want it to be!  I want the recording to sound the way my concert sounds.  A lot of the recording engineers are very grateful to me for that, because then they say, “We are reproducing faithfully what you are giving us.”  In other words, it’s my balance.  If I can’t hear the second violins on the playback, I go and fix it in the studio.  I don’t tell them, “Give me more second violins.”  But some of my colleagues do that.  They sit in listening booths and say, “Give me more second flute.  Give me more this, give me more that.”  In other words they play mezzo forte
and the engineer does the rest.  I don’t like that!  Sometimes we have the luxury, when we hear a complete first edit but we don’t have the orchestra anymore to say, “I didn’t balance the clarinet’s little voice.  Please help me there.”  Those little fine tunings we do.

BD:    Just a touch-up?

ZM:    Yes, yes, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s come back to the purely musical side of all of this rather than the engineering side.  When you’re working with a group, either the opera or the symphony, is all of your work done in the rehearsal, or do you leave something, some spark for that night of performance?

mehta ZM:    All the technical work is done, of course, at rehearsal.  All the construction is done; it’s my obligation.  With soloists it’s different, but with a string section, if they don’t feel the phrase where it starts, where it has its high point, we have to point that out.  All that has to be done in the rehearsal.  The question of tension arises at the concert, which I purposely don’t do at rehearsals.  You can’t give all the punch lines out.  In the rehearsal I sit down and quietly go through high points.  I let it build up, and a lot of the intimate high points have to be really rehearsed, of course.  You can’t just do that only at the concert.  But with an orchestra like the Israel Philharmonic, that I am so at home with, we hardly work at development sections of classical symphonies.  We let that blossom at the concert.  Of course, it is taken for granted that they knew the notes and it’s perfectly in tune and rhythmically accurate, all that.  So with me a lot happens at the concert.

BD:    I assume that an orchestra on the level of the Israel Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic, or New York or Los Angeles, these top flight orchestras, you really don’t have to worry about technical problems such as pitch and duration, or even phrasing.  You can begin working on the musical ideas.

ZM:    Well...  [Laughs]  It depends.  You know, for Don Juan of Strauss there’s no orchestra in the world that you don’t have to rehearse; The Marriage of Figaro Overture you have to rehearse!  Things like that.

BD:    Just for the tricky string passages?

ZM:    Oh yes, because they have played these works with different conductors.  One takes it at breakneck speed, the other one takes it slow because he wants to hear every note.  Musicians are at a great disadvantage with some of my colleagues, and with myself included in that!  They don’t know what’s going to happen.  Therefore, one has to sit down and work at it.

BD:    Is there ever a chance that either a symphony or an opera can get over-rehearsed?

ZM:    Not in the West.  [Both laugh]  Over-rehearsing happened in the Communist world, where without any unions until the break-up, conductors just used to do with the musicians’ time whatever they wanted.

BD:    And they could demand as much time as they wanted?

ZM:    Oh yes, they were the boss; they were the tsars!  Musicians had practically no say.  I know it from the fact that some of them emigrated to Israel and were given jobs.  One conductor did twenty-four rehearsals on the Beethoven Fourth Symphony.  I heard the result and of course they played together and in tune, but it was a dry piece of bone!  He had taken out every sentiment, every instinct.

BD:    Was this his idea or just his result?

ZM:    That’s the way he grew up, he said.  It’s the way they rehearse in Russia!

BD:    How can you combat this?

ZM:    Oh well, we never have enough time.  Never.  Therefore we have to be much more organized at rehearsals.  That’s what I keep on telling my friends the stage directors, who have all the time in the world.  I’m not talking of anybody in particular; I’m talking of all of them.

BD:    A blanket statement.

ZM:    Blanket statement!  If they come as prepared with their conception as we come, they would not need all that time.  Let’s say they have a month of rehearsing.  From the first rehearsal to the last rehearsal it is completely an about face!  The first week we had one version of his staging. The second week it’s another version, and it keeps on changing.  I, as a conductor, interfere too, so he changes.  Some of the singers have comments, so he changes.

BD:    If he keeps changing, does it keep improving?

mehta ZM:    Let’s say there’s an evolution.  [Both laugh]  When do we really realize this?  During the last week, when everything’s functioning!  Even if I agree with everything that’s going on, I feel, “Why didn’t he do that four weeks ago?”  Four weeks ago he had a completely different idea!  He could have come the last week with this idea and put it together because the singers know their roles and they don’t really need all that time to rehearse on stage.

BD:    But the stage director must be more than just a traffic cop!

ZM:    I know!  But even the traffic changes!  That’s what my point is.

BD:    If he has four weeks, you say he should have come the last week.  If he’d had six weeks, would it be yet another two weeks’ difference?

ZM:    Obviously, and there have been great directors who sometimes use the time well, like in East Berlin in the Communist times, there was a great stage director named Walter Felsenstein.  He used to rehearse and rehearse.  I was never at his rehearsals, but the results were magical!   I don’t know in his case how he started, but to see the Janacek opera The Cunning Vixen? was just magical on stage!  I saw a great Otello.  The only thing is that because he demanded so much time, no good singer would give that time, so the singing level in his productions was always lower.

BD:    That’s too bad because it would be interesting to match the high level of singing with the high level of production.

ZM:    Sure.  But you can’t get, say, Placido Domingo for seven weeks before a premiere of Otello.

BD:    You can hardly get him for seven days before!

ZM:    Exactly.

BD:    You are talking about the stage directors changing their ideas.  Is there ever a case where you come with an idea to a symphony concert and then change it in the middle of rehearsals because you find out or discover something new either with that orchestra or within yourself?

ZM:    Never a ground concept; never a basic concept.  The basic concept, of course, has been worked out within me with my knowledge of style, tempo, composer’s handwriting, everything.  However, a four-bar phrase played by a certain woodwind soloist can completely convince me that’s another way of doing it!  I’m flexible, completely open.

BD:    Then do you take that phrase to another orchestra, or do you leave that as the special property of that player?

ZM:    Sometimes I live with these axioms.  That’s why I miss the New York Philharmonic so much!  Some of the things I heard for thirteen years, especially when played by the soloists of that orchestra, from that point of view have been the high point of my life.  I don’t hear them played as well anywhere!

BD:    I would think that some of these things would transfer from one orchestra to another, at least ensembles on the same level.

ZM:    No, no, I’m talking of individual achievements.  There are certain things, a certain level that has been established in my remembrance of the way certain first trumpet passages should be played, which I’ve never heard before or after as well, as with the first trumpet of the New York Philharmonic, just to give you an example.

BD:    So what happens when you come to the Chicago Symphony and Adolph Herseth plays that phrase even better?

ZM:    I am very grateful!  I’ve learned something!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are there times when you’re studying that you throw out the old scores and just start re-digging into a piece of music with a clean score?

ZM:    That happens many times because I couldn’t even find my old score.  [Both laugh]  Just the other day I went to Pierre’s interpretation of the Bluebeard, which I adored.  I haven’t done that piece for over twenty years and I don’t know where that score is.  I’m going to do it in Florence this May, so I have to start from scratch.

BD:    Will you have some of Boulez’s ideas in your ear, or will you just work directly from the page?

ZM:    He was so faithful to the score!  I went with a borrowed score to the concert, and everything was crystal clear.  I learned a lot.  In fact, I asked him if I can just come and sit when he records it.  I need that refresher course also.

BD:    [With a sly nudge]  You’re cramming for your own performances???

mehta ZM:    Mm-hm.  I love going to colleagues
rehearsals and listening.  I used to go a lot to Lenny’s rehearsals in Vienna because in the sixties and even seventies the Vienna Philharmonic didn’t know all the Mahler symphonies.  I remember the Mahler Seventh.  They were sight reading like school children, and sitting at those rehearsals, I learned a lot!

BD:    You would rather sit in and listen from the back, rather than pick up your bass and play in the section?

ZM:    From that point of view, it’s better to listen.

BD:    Do you encourage colleagues both young and old to sit in on your rehearsals?

ZM:    I don’t mind at all.  Very rarely do I ask students to stay out.  I just don’t like it when people come and then gossip.  There are a certain amount of exchanges between conductor and orchestra, that if it’s misquoted on the outside, it can be damaging all around.

BD:    What advice do you have for the next generation of conductors coming along?

ZM:    The same advice I got in Vienna when I went to Eduard van Beinum, the great Dutch conductor.  I said to him, “I have a paper from the Vienna Academy that says I’m a conductor.  What do I do now?”  He took me by my shoulders, he shook me and he said, “Now you swim.”  [Both laugh]  Really, everybody wants so much help!  In my case, my only help was the first time somebody gave me a chance, and it was my achievement during that first concert that I was invited again.  Nobody gives you that second chance.

BD:    You have to make the most of the opportunity.

ZM:    You have to convince a hundred people that they want to see you again.

BD:    Are you convincing a hundred people in front of you, or two thousand people behind you?

ZM:    No, first the hundred people in front.  It has never happened with me that an orchestra just doesn’t like to play under me, but I’ve had this great success and was invited back.  It never happens.  I’ve been music director of several orchestras now in the last thirty years.  If the orchestra does not like to play with the conductor, I don’t call him back.  And if they like the person and he has not had a tremendous success, I do invite him back.

BD:    Once they have the paper from some academy, at what point can they call themselves

ZM:    It’s a question of experience, and it’s a vicious circle.  So you have to give young people a chance.  Word of mouth is very important for me.  If a colleague tells me, “I’ve seen this young kid and I think he should be given a chance,” I feel much better about it because everybody sends you their good reviews.

BD:    Is it true that almost any conductor could play in front of a great orchestra because the great orchestra is already great, but it would be better to put a young conductor in front of a lesser orchestra to see what he can build?

ZM:    Both.  You’re absolutely right; both have to go hand in hand.  Sometimes of course, a young conductor gets only the semi-professional chance, which he should build up by himself until he gets the opportunity.  I was fortunate to have both these simultaneously.  I started my career in Yugoslavia and Norway.  Colleagues of mine in my class in Vienna, who were already conductors in those countries, would invite me.  I was about ten years younger than them, and they saw me and liked what I did, and then they would call me again.  So those were extremities of the musical world in the late fifties and early sixties.

BD:    That’s where you go to make your mistakes?

ZM:    Yes, well, sure!  I will still make mistakes!  I’m talking of musical mistakes.  I was very confident because I had a very solid musical training in Vienna, and I didn’t venture out of that repertoire in the beginning.  I kept to the repertoire I was trained in.  That was the Viennese School.

BD:    Schubert, Beethoven, Mahler?

ZM:    Yes, absolutely.  From Haydn to Strauss; Mahler, not too much.  It’s a misconception that Mahler is considered a Viennese specialist.  Mahler was an adopted Viennese, but basically until Lenny came to Vienna and started insisting on doing the big Mahler symphonies, Mahler was not popular at all in Vienna.  People put Mahler and Bruckner in one cup, but it’s just not right.  Bruckner is the Austrian staple, not Mahler.  Today, Mahler is a popular composer in Vienna like everywhere else, but it never used to be.  I did the Mahler Tenth Adagio with the Vienna Philharmonic and it was the first time they had ever played it.  They didn’t like it.  They kept on making remarks, even some of them quite anti-Semitic.

BD:    Let me ask, perhaps, a facetious question.  Was Bruckner the first minimalist composer?

ZM:    [Laughs]  No.  Bruckner has one twentieth century parallel, and that’s Messiaen.  He was not a minimalist.  Messiaen was in love with Christianity, Catholicism, nature, length, and was an organist.  I told that to Messiaen and he didn’t disagree.  He didn’t know Bruckner at all!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You have three or even four-hundred years of music to choose from.  How do you decide which pieces you will learn and conduct, and which pieces you will turn aside and not bother with?

ZM:    This is such a perpetual motion.  At this very moment I can’t wait to do once in my life Parsifal.  So you see, I already know what I want to do in the next ten years.  There was a time it was The Ring.  There was a time years ago, it was the G Minor Symphony.  I always knew a certain amount of repertoire, but there were things I was dying to do that I was reticent!  I could have always done the G Minor Symphony of Mozart and the Eroica, but I kept those on the back burner and kept on studying them.   They were mountains that I was afraid to climb, frankly, and I kept not wanting to record for a long time.

mehta BD:    Now when you climb some of these mountains, you look over and you see the other peaks.  Do you discover peaks that you didn’t know were there and other mountains that you want to climb later?

ZM:    Yes.  The minute you accomplish one, then you want to go to the other.  It is like peaks, yes.

BD:    But is it like peaks that you have to then come down the side and go up the other side, or can you go right from peak to peak?

ZM:    No, you can’t!  [Laughs]  You have to start each one from scratch; there’s no doubt.  Not from sea level, but for instance, I can’t say I know all the Haydn symphonies.  I don’t.  I know maybe twenty-five Haydn symphonies.

BD:    So if you’re presented with one hundred and four, how do you decide which twenty-five you will do?

ZM:    During my student years we learned a certain amount.  Then I played a certain amount in the orchestra.  I also played masses.  Then when you make programs, you say, “What fits in there?”  Maybe an early Haydn symphony will work more than a late, so then you look for the early Haydn symphony.  That’s how it happens, really.

BD:    Okay.  Now let’s go forward.  You do some new music.  How do you decide which scores you will present, presumably not having heard them?

ZM:    This is a problem.  The problem is also when you commission because nobody has ever commissioned a masterpiece.  I once commissioned a piece for the opening of the Los Angeles Music Center, and when I got the score and we read it through, nobody liked it.  But I still performed it.  Heifetz came up to me after the concert and said, “You paid the composer.  You don’t have to perform it.  If you didn’t pay him you’re at fault, but you paid him.”  I said, “No.  I’m obliged.”  He also happened to be a friend, and I performed it.  Sometimes you discover, through commissions, some great pieces.

BD:    Is there any real way, even through rehearsal, of telling if a piece is going to be great?  Doesn’t it have to actually get heard a few times?

ZM:    Today, with modern music, one almost has to do some research before you event attempt.  Everyone figures out his own system, his own kind of notation.  I love for the composer to be at the rehearsals.  I love it.  If the composer then helps me, I even love it more.  I’ll be very frank
— many composers do not help you at the rehearsals.  They don’t know their score as well as you think they do, or they should do.

BD:    By not helping, are you saying they do nothing, or do they hinder?

ZM:    No, they don’t hinder.  They just don’t listen.  They don’t even listen.  They’re supposed to know their piece inside out, right?

BD:    Presumably.

ZM:    Better than I do, at least.  I’ve looked through it.  I’ve studied it as much as I can, but they’re the ones who created it.  But I find sometimes I know the piece in a little bit more in detail than they do!

BD:    But you’ve come at it from a different angle.

ZM:    Yes, but I get impatient with these composers.  When I show a composer page fifty-seven and I say, “Please sing me this theme,” I don’t want note perfection, because those themes, let’s say, are quite esoteric.  At least I want him to sing me the tempo, but when I see him turning three pages back to look at his own metronome, then of course I lose respect.  This also happens with famous composers.  When I turn around in front of the orchestra to the man who’s sitting and I say, “Please, tell me about this or that,” and he has nothing to say, then the orchestra loses respect.  Again, I must speak about Messiaen.  He knew every note of every score he wrote.  He could go on the piano and play it for you, and then he was very critical.  We were very close friends; he was like a father figure.  He must have sat through at least four different creations of the Turnangalila Symphony that I did.  He was critical to the last movement, the last note!  [Laughs]

mehta30 BD:    Helpful critical?

ZM:    Very.  Very!  I really liked it.  Sometimes his wife, who would play piano in the orchestra, would disagree with him.  She would like my tempo because it was a practical, musician’s tempo, and his is idealistic.

BD:    Shouldn’t you try to approach his tempo?

ZM:    Oh yes!  I did, always.

BD:    So are you trying then to strike a balance between the practicality and the ideal?

ZM:    Most of the time it works out quite well.  In the case of Messiaen, some of his metronomes are so slow that the bows are not long enough to play those notes, and nobody’s lungs are made to hold a phrase that long!

BD:    Coming back to what we were talking about earlier, if that was the tempo that he really wanted, could you go into a recording control room and splice in a few extra seconds?

ZM:    [Laughs]  No, we can’t do that.  We could try it, though, but in the end, he never complained.  Some of his movements, on the other hand, are so fast such as some of his birds in Et expecto.  He has written bird movements that are even impossible to beat because it changes the rhythms every bar.  And he wants it so fast because he knows the speed the bird sang!

BD:    So he’s trying to reproduce it?

ZM:    Oh, absolutely.  He used to go into the forest and the jungles and write down these bird calls in obscure islands off the coast of New Guinea.  He’d talk about little islands off the coast of New Caledonia!  First of all, we had to find where New Caledonia is!

BD:    [Laughs]  It’s just a fly speck itself!

ZM:    And he knows the island off the coast of New Caledonia! [Laughs]

BD:    Does this translate into something that the ordinary musician in the orchestra can understand?

ZM:    Every bird is notated in every orchestra part.  I’ve not done too much of the music of Pierre Boulez, but whenever he’s present he has helped a lot.  He hears perfectly his music.

BD:    He has probably the best ear around.

ZM:    Yes, but he knows what he has written, and he knows, as a conductor, how to get it out.  So he helps both ways.

BD:    You’ve worked with Messiaen and with a number of other composers.  Does this influence how you will work with a composer you have never met, such as Beethoven or Schubert, or even Mahler?

ZM:    Yeah.  I would have loved to have Mahler at a rehearsal, because he is so personal and so folkloristic.  On the other hand, from the Wagnerian point of view, in some of his adagios he goes so deep into your soul.  So Mahler has in one symphony a spectrum of everything.

BD:    Do you as a conductor notice his scores being different because he was also a first-class conductor?

mehta ZM:    Yes, because he kept on changing.  There are so many versions of the Second Symphony.  His changes came about from his rehearsing the symphonies with different orchestras.  We have scores in the New York Philharmonic library notated by him, and if you go to Prague you find his red ink notations even in orchestra parts.

BD:    So which of these versions is correct?

ZM:    They are all valid.  And then you have him playing excerpts on piano rolls!  There you see what freedom he took with his music, because some of us, myself included, see the note as being holy, and the composer was so extemporizing!  There’s a piano roll of him playing the First Symphony.  My God!  This is like a piece of Chopin, it’s so free!

BD:    Would you ever in the world try to play it that way?

ZM:    We try now that we’ve heard it, but it’s difficult with an orchestra to have it that full of rubato.

BD:    Let me ask the big philosophical question.  What’s the purpose of music?

ZM:    With me, it’s a language.  I speak quite a few languages, and there is no language that speaks to me as clearly as the language of music.  Therefore, if I take for granted that my giving this language forth through the orchestra to the public indicates some sort of message, that is the purpose.  You can look at the most beautiful painting and the most incredible statue or an architectural wonder, and yet you hear the Eroica or you hear the B Minor Mass.  There is another dimension which I cannot describe!  It’s what you can’t see and what you cannot touch, and yet it completely stirs you emotionally.

BD:    Is conducting fun?

ZM:    Most of the time.  When I see that colleagues are involved, I don’t even mind sometimes if the level is lower than another orchestra’s level.  If they are involved, if they are giving their all, I find it more fun than a great orchestra who sits back and says, “We are So-and-So.  Admire us for what we are,” and nothing happens musically.

BD:    Then it becomes routine?

ZM:    Routine of a very high standard, but it doesn’t touch the soul!  Just to illustrate the point, a couple of years ago I took the Florence orchestra on a tour of South America.  The Florence Orchestra is a good European orchestra.  For the last eight or nine years I’ve been bringing in many foreign musicians to fill in the holes in the orchestra, and it’s become quite an even-handed ensemble now.  So we went to South America.  I’ve been to South America with my orchestras from New York and Israel, and had wonderful times with both orchestras.  The success that this Florence orchestra had was not to be compared to the other two!  They were coming out of the footlights; they were sitting at the end of their chairs.  That was the first big tour of their lives.  They wanted to come back, maybe.  They wanted to prove something, and the public went crazy!  The quality was not of the other two orchestras, and yet the public who doesn’t really understand the difference of those fine points of the quality didn’t care!  They didn’t care that the brass or the strings or the woodwinds of the Florence Orchestra was not like the New York Philharmonic, and let me tell you, as a professional you can’t even compare it!  But the combined impression given from the stage was one of such involvement, and some love for what they were doing, that the public just burst every night!

mehta BD:    That’s a great thing.

ZM:    Yes!  And this is what is fun!

BD:    Thank you so very much for speaking with me today.  I appreciate it.

ZM:    It’s a pleasure.

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We met again on Leap Day of 1996. 
As we were getting started, he mentioned that in two years he was going to become the Music Director of the Munich Opera . . . . . . .

BD:    Is that where Everding was?  [See my Interview with August Everding.]

ZM:    He has a theater called The Prinzregententheater, but he used to be Intendant of the Munich opera (1977-82), and then Sawallisch took over to be Intendant (1982-93; he had been Music Director since 1971).  [See my Interview with Wolfgang Sawallisch.]

BD:    So you’re getting back into the opera again after so many years of symphony?

ZM:    I’ve never been music director of an opera house.

BD:    But you’ve been always involved in it.

ZM:    Yeah, I’ve always done opera.

BD:    Is it good that major conducting figures play hopscotch all over the world, being music director here for a while then music director there for a while?

ZM:    What do you mean, ‘for a while’?  In my case I was sixteen years in LA, thirteen in New York, and it’s twenty-five years in Israel.  So that’s not just passing through.

BD:    No, you have spent good chunks of time in these places.

ZM:    For me, yeah.  There are colleagues, though, who do five-year stints in different places.  I don’t know their reason or whether they have anything to do with it.  [Laughs]

BD:    Is the era of the forty-year music director gone?

ZM:    Well, as I say, I’m still going strong in Israel, and leaving both orchestras, Los Angeles and New York, was my decision.  I think today one has to consider traveling facilities.  Half of the career of the forty-year music directors was before the jet was invented.  Don’t forget that.  If you offered Koussevitzky a jet airplane, and also in many cases private airplanes, would he have stayed in Boston that long?  It’s a hypothetical situation we create, but still, one has to consider that.

BD:    Looking at it from both directions, you’ve been music director of orchestras and now an opera house, and you’ve been guest conductor all over the world.  What are the basic differences, when doing the music, between those two positions?

ZM:    As I said, I’ve never been a music director of an opera house.  I’m going to start that venture in 1998 in Munich at the Bavarian State Opera.  At the age of sixty-two, I’m going to be for the first time in my life a civil servant!  In fact, my immediate boss, when I’m Music Director, is the Minister of Culture of Bavaria.  I don’t know what the situation is like; I don’t know how I am going to adjust.

mehta BD:    Then let’s talk about the symphony.  You’ve been music director in Los Angeles and New York and Israel, but you guest conduct all over the place.

ZM:    That’s not entirely true.  I guest conduct only in Vienna and Berlin.

BD:    You guest conduct here in Chicago!

ZM:    That’s an operatic project.  Next year I’m coming for two weeks to the Chicago Symphony, but really I’m not one of those people who guest conduct too much.

BD:    You don’t want to be that peripatetic?

ZM:    No, no, no.  I never have been, never.  I travel a lot with my orchestra, whether it was New York or now in Israel.  In Israel, we do sometimes three tours a year.  This I love!  I love going to various places with my orchestra with my rehearsed interpretations.  I never have had the attraction to go from one great symphony orchestra to another great symphony orchestra and do the same program.  I never repeat programs because then I start comparing.  If I went to the Vienna Philharmonic and did the Bruckner Eighth, and next week went to Berlin and did the same piece, I think I would suffer.  The music would suffer, too.

BD:    Tell me the joys and sorrows of touring with an orchestra.

ZM:    I have only joys, I must say.  Some orchestra members don’t like to do a tour too much, because their wives don’t like it, first of all.  We have now a sort of an unwritten law in Israel that we don’t do tours longer than five weeks at a time.  Some orchestras have even less.  We always promise ourselves that we’ll go only for a month, but by the time the tour comes about, so many other invitations come in that are too tempting, so it becomes five weeks.  We recently went to Japan, China and India and it became six weeks.  I think my longest tour was with the Los Angeles Philharmonic back in 1967, which was a nine-week world tour.  But I must tell you, it was so early also in the orchestra’s history of touring that at that point nobody complained.  Besides, we not only played the capitals of Europe, but we played in exotic places like Cypress and Istanbul, and we played for the coronation of the Shah of Iran.  Then we finally ended up in my country.  It was my official debut in India, so the orchestra was very anxious for that also.

BD:    Did the nine-week tour cure them of wanting to go?

ZM:    No, but we had a lot of absenteeism after the tour!  [Both laugh]  They suddenly felt sick and tired.

BD:    On any tour you have several programs.  How do you keep each of those programs fresh?

ZM:    Only by not repeating too much along the way.  It would be very tempting, or very easy in some sense, to go only with two programs, but that really becomes boring.  I cannot keep my interest nor the orchestra’s interest if we played, let’s say, a Dvořák symphony and a Brahms symphony on the whole tour.  I really envy the staying power of some of these musical comedy people.

mehta BD:    They do eight performances of the same show a week.

ZM:    I once asked Lauren Bacall, “How do you do it month after month?”

BD:    I assume that’s when they get the little pranks up each night.

ZM:    I guess, but you can’t compare the classic aspect of a musical comedy to the classic aspect of an Eroica, you know.  We can’t reproduce it every night with the same fervor, week after week.  I couldn’t do it.

BD:    When you do a subscription symphony concert, it’s going to be three or four or five or maybe even six performances.  Can you keep all six up to the highest level?

ZM:    Yes.  That’s good, but that’s also good for the orchestra.  That builds repertoire.  What happens in England is that we rehearse and rehearse and then play one concert.  This concert, of course, has a lot of tension because it is only one time, but I don’t know how much stays then.

BD:    It’d be better to do it two or three times?

ZM:    Oh, yes, of course.  In Israel we repeat six to eight times, but when we take up the piece after three or four seasons, it is there.

BD:    Then you don’t need as much rehearsal?

ZM:    Not as much, no.  There are always new people, and there’s always new ideas from the conductor, too.  And we have a rotation within the orchestra, so maybe the last time there was a different first horn playing it, so we have to always rehearse.  But this is musical matter and interpretation and listening.  Fine orchestral players are fine listeners of one another, too.  I encourage that a lot, and in Israel we have really a conglomeration of chamber music players.  So they are very listening-conscious.  They are also very opinionated, because in chamber music they decide themselves what the tempo is so they question you a lot.  [Laughs]

BD:    Do you ever have any fights with the orchestra about that?

ZM:    No.  No.  There are discussions, and my door is always open.  I am very pleased when a musician comes up and says, “Why?”

BD:    But at some point you have to make the decision, and that is what it is.

ZM:    During a rehearsal, I’m the one who makes the decision about the tempo, but even within the rehearsal anyone can say to me, “Give me a little more time on this phrase.”  So I do that gladly, but I can’t diametrically change my conception, no. 

BD:    When you come back to a piece after ten or twenty or perhaps even thirty years, has your concept of the piece changed at all, or radically?

ZM:    I don’t find it changing.  I find details emerging that I didn’t know or notice, or there will be something I suddenly thought of.  Even with a Beethoven symphony that happens, but the basic structure doesn’t change because the basic structure is in the score!  It’s not my conception that this is the structure.  Beethoven or Haydn made the structure of the symphony, and since my interpretation is very structurally oriented, that cannot change.

BD:    The structure of the Beethoven symphony is the same whether you’re conducting or it is someone else, and yet they’ll be radically, wildly different.

ZM:    Oh yes, but that’s what you call interpretation!  [Both laugh]  Every symphony has a bridge between the development and the recapitulation.  Whether it’s Haydn or Mozart, it’s what time you take; it’s what kind of a modulation is involved there; it
’s how Mozart brings the G Minor Symphony first movement back; its how the theme of the Eroica comes back.  It’s completely different in each case.  The bridge in the Eroica is much longer.  There’s a lot of tension, and that’s where one conductor or one interpreter has different ideas.  We have to also consider if every conductor really realizes with an orchestra what he really wants.  Is it happening, or does he just let the orchestra take over?  I go to concerts of colleagues and I see and hear a lot!  I see an intention being started, and I don’t see it being fulfilled.  I see what the man is trying to do, and of course many times with fine conductors it happens.  Many times though, it doesn’t.  So therefore there’s a sort of an anarchy even with a good orchestra.  Somehow it comes together in the end, but I see that this is not what the conductor originally set out in the beginning of this certain passage.  We musicians have this paranoia when we go to concerts of analyzing all the time.  We can’t help it.  I really wish I could just sit back and enjoy sometimes.  And I do when I like somebody, when I agree.  Then I really sit back and I enjoy.  I look forward to it, even.  But this happens even in a movie when I’m listening to the music.  It’s a bad habit, I suppose.

BD:    It’s one of the frustrations of the profession, I guess.

ZM:    Yeah.

BD:    How much of your intent actually gets realized in most concerts or operas?

ZM:    I tell you, with the orchestras that I’m a music director it gets realized more because they know beforehand what I like and I know their characteristics.  It’s a two-way thing.  They have to know me as much as I know them, and that changes.  I’m flexible from solo player to solo player and also from section to section in the orchestra.  I know what my viola section in the Israel Philharmonic can do and deliver during a concert after having rehearsed certain things.  I know what I can suddenly demand of them and whether I will get it or not.  With some sections, I don’t get it, so I don’t take the risk.

BD:    Is making music always taking risks?

ZM:    Ah, I love to take risks!  After having established a ground basic principle of a certain movement of symphony, yes!  You and the soloist take musical risks.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Amazingly, one of the things we didn’t talk about a couple of years ago was Wagner.  You’re completing your Ring here.  Is this your first full Ring?

ZM:    No.  I did it in Florence, but this is the first time I’m conducting it in one cycle.  In Florence we just did each opera over four years but no full cycle at the end.

BD:    Does your concept of the whole thing grow and deepen as a cycle?

mehta ZM:    Even rehearsing it, I feel myself conducting one opera lasting over seventeen hours.

BD:    So it really is one piece?

ZM:    Yeah, and especially because we are not rehearsing it in a chronological fashion.  In fact, last week I was going between the second floor and the fifth floor, and every room was practicing another scene of one of the operas.  I was sometimes conducting in the pit, and it’s an exaggeration but in one little detail, all of a sudden I don’t know which opera I’m in because it’s the same motif. 
Valhalla always is in D-flat major in the Rheingold and in Götterdämmerung, and in Siegfried, too.

BD:    But, the motif of
Siegfried or the motif of Hope will change somewhat.

ZM:    They change radically, and they are sometimes hidden in the score.  Not
Siegfried as much, but the curse motif and the motif of love and the minor motifs come in all different kinds of rhythms.  You have to really sit and think, “Oh, my God.  This is not a new melody.  It is the same.”  But this is where Wagner is a genius.  And this idea is taken over by Richard Strauss in his Tone Poems.  George Szell and I once had lunch, and we only spoke about the Domestic Symphony of Strauss, because not only do we love to conduct it, but on paper we look at that score and discover things!  It’s a kaleidoscope where you suddenly see a little nose or a feature that you haven’t seen before.  A hundred faces are hidden in the score.

BD:    Did Strauss put those in the score for you, or did he put them in the score for the audience?

ZM:    That’s just a whole other point.  What does the audience really hear in the end?  I don’t know.  I’m not being snobby, not at all!  I can’t really tell, because I’m not listening with their ears.

BD:    What do you want them to hear?

ZM:    I want them to hear analytically when I’m conducting analytically on stage.  I don’t know if it’s reaching them.  I don’t even know what they’re thinking about.  This is not a negative comment, but I don’t know!

BD:    Is it possible to have one interpretation go out there for the musicologist who studied the score, and another for the guy off the street who’s bought a ticket for the first time?

ZM:    Yes.  We get letters sometimes from people who say, “We were at your concert for the first time, and we feel that we have discovered such and such.”  It’s not that they discovered me, they have discovered the Beethoven Seventh Symphony and the inherently rhythmic potential that it has.  It speaks to people.  I once went with an Indian general to a concert of Karl Böhm conducting the Beethoven Seventh in Berlin.  I’m convinced this man was highly cultured, a very educated person, a retired general who has never heard western classical music.  I know that without speaking to him.  He came to this concert with me, and in Indian music, like in jazz, the public takes part by beating or clapping or saying,
“Great.  After a jazz lick is finished, they applaud, right?

BD:    Sure, sure.

ZM:    In Indian music it’s the same thing.  After a certain improvisational cycle is finished, people voice their appreciation.

BD:    While some of the other music is still going on?

ZM:    When a sitar and tabla play and a certain cycle is over, the sitarist has to breathe before the tabla goes on.  The rhythm section goes on, but in this little breath the public demonstrates their appreciation.  Well, this man started talking like that during the Beethoven Seventh and he started beating with his hands!  The people in Berlin turned around in shock, but he was really appreciating!  He got the rhythm of the second movement.  It spoke to him!  I really appreciated that this man, all by himself, discovered the rhythmic potential of a Beethoven symphony.  Now maybe the rest of the audience was just dreaming or asleep or appreciating.  There’s a whole mixture.

BD:    The rest of the audience may have heard it a hundred times.  Did they get excited that here is this man hearing it for the first time?

ZM:    No.  They were just shocked.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you conduct a piece of music, how much is the score and how much is Zubin Mehta?

mehta ZM:    I hope very little is me, basically.  I love the scores I conduct so much that I am continuously kneeling before them.  I have come to the point in my life that I only conduct what I want.  My period of my life that I was obligated to do certain things is over...  Well, it’s not completely over, but it’s mostly over, so that every piece of music I put in the program is because I want to and I love it, or it is for a soloist I perform with.  At this point, I only perform with those soloists that I feel I breathe with.

BD:    Do you ever want to challenge yourself and do something either completely outrageous or unknown?

ZM:    Oh, yeah, but because I want to do it, of course!  Yeah sure, but many compositions I’ve done in the years at the New York Philharmonic and LA Philharmonic I knew when I was conducting them that I will never do them again.

BD:    [Laughs]  In other words, thank God it’s over?

ZM:    Yes.  I’m a great promoter of contemporary music, so I don’t want to create any impression that I don’t appreciate that at all.  No, no.  But sometimes you commission a piece, but you can never commission a masterpiece.  What comes out you’re obligated to do.  Jascha Heifetz once came to a world premiere of a composition, which he hated and which I didn’t much care for and he said, “Why did you play it?”  I said, “I commissioned it!”  He said, “You can pay the composer, but you don’t have to play it.”  I said, “No.  I don’t agree.”  You have to give the composition a chance!

BD:    Is it the obligation of the musical community to give virtually all the compositions a chance?

ZM:    What do you mean, “All?”

BD:    All of the new pieces so that we can sort through them and find the masterpieces out of it.

ZM:    Yes!  This has been my philosophy always.  You have to put a certain amount of new music through the sieve of eternity to see what’s left over, and it’s really not until the performance that you can judge.  Look at all the hundreds of compositions that were written and performed in the 19th Century that we don’t know today.  They have disappeared.  I once read a list of operas that Gustav Mahler conducted in Hamburg as Kappelmeister.  I’ve never even heard of those composers, leave aside the operas.  They don’t exist anymore, but Mahler conducted them because he probably had no choice.  He was not Music Director there, so he just had to.

BD:    But he gave them their shot.

ZM:    Yes, sure.  He conducted something like a hundred and fifty-seven performances a year.  Unbelievable!  Today you have contracts with opera houses where you conduct twenty or twenty-five evenings a year.  He did a hundred and fifty-seven!  He also took the summers off and did nothing but compose.

BD:    Now you’re about to hit sixty...

ZM:    No, sixty is hitting me.  [Both laugh]  I don’t feel it at all, I must say.

BD:    Are you fending it off or are you welcoming it with open arms?

ZM:    No, but it’s the last birthday I’m announcing.  [Laughs]  That’s it.

BD:    What are some of the surprises that you’ve seen in music over this time?

ZM:    Constantly pleasant surprises; all the young people I’ve helped to develop, and I can give you a long list.  I’m not going to drop names now, but this has given me enormous, enormous pleasure over the years.  Also the young, talented composers, introducing them to the orchestra and within the orchestra.  In my sixteen years in Los Angeles I engaged eighty-two new players, and I would say in seventy per cent of the cases I made the right decision.  I always had a committee, of course, helping me.  And I feel in the case of the New York Philharmonic, where I brought in about forty-five or forty-seven musicians, ninety per cent of the people I’m proud to have chosen.

BD:    What advice do you have for someone who wants to be an orchestral player?

ZM:    Let’s talk about strings because it is in the string profession where people are not sure whether they will go into an orchestra.  In the wind profession, ninety-five per cent are studying to go into some of the greatest orchestras in the world.  In the string profession, as a talented teen-ager you are not sure.

BD:    You might want to form a quartet?

mehta ZM:    If you are really very talented as a teen-ager, you want to be a soloist... and your mother wants you to be a soloist!  Most times also the teacher wants you to be a soloist, and that’s where the mistake happens.  The teacher, for his own ego or for his own advertisement, does not see the potential of a good orchestral player.  I have arguments with teachers all over the world.  I say, “You have talent.  If this talent is going to be a soloist, you can’t stop this.”  That person will become a soloist whether you put him down or whether you encourage him.  But if you have a real talent, that talent has to be geared to what’s the best that you can possibly imagine for him.  If then he wants to be in an orchestra or to go into a quartet or become a soloist, he can always try.  I’ll give you an example.  I nurtured a six year-old boy in Los Angeles.  His father was the leader of my second violin section.  He was an extremely talented kid, and as a child I made him play little solos with the orchestra for children’s concerts, etc.  Then he grew up.  Of course he wanted to be a soloist.  He had real soloist material.   He went to New York and studied with the great Ivan Galamian, and I encouraged him.  Then he started playing solo recitals and I heard him.  Considering the talent of the people playing already in the late 1960’s, I knew he would not make a world career.  I was not going to discourage him, but I talked to his father.  I said, “I’m willing to take him in as Assistant Concertmaster and he’s only in his late teens now.  I will see to it that he plays as much solo as possible as well as being with the LA Philharmonic.  I’ll give him time off to play his dates so he has the satisfaction of playing solo, but I will prophesy that seating him next to an experienced player
a concertmasterwill give him the experience, and by the time he’s twenty-five he will be ready to be concertmaster of the best orchestra.”  His father must have talked to him, and in a few years he came to me.  I think he was about twenty or twenty-one and he said, “I want to take you up on your offer.”  So with the agreement of the orchestra I put him on the second stand.  He was assistant concertmaster and he sat next to a former concertmastera real old fox, a man who knew everything about that professionand he kept on coaching him.  I would see at rehearsals that he was getting advice from a master.

BD:    You really apprenticed him!

ZM:    Yes!  Today his is the Concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic.

BD:    This is Glenn Dicterow?

ZM:    Yes.  Obviously, you know him!  I brought him to the New York Philharmonic also.  In his contract, apart from the two months that the Philharmonic gets off in any case, he has another two months off to do solos.  He can play solo for four months, if he wants!  He makes a rather good career as a soloist with every metropolitan orchestra around, and he plays with the New York Philharmonic.  He played with me on tour a lot.  He played the Tchaikovsky Concerto, the Symphonie Espagnol, Brahms Double, etcetera.  But because I also encourage him as a soloist, then when he has to play Brahms First Symphony, it’s a piece of cake!

BD:    Do you then feel especially warm when he does the solos in Scheherazade or other incidental things like that?

ZM:    Yeah, everything.  This is no problem because he’s used to playing solo for about three to four months a year.  But this is the typical example of somebody who, had he remained as a soloist, would have played solo and would have earned a good living, but it’s just not on that level that a Vengerov comes and conquers the world!  You could never tell a Vengerov to play in the orchestra; there’s no way.  He’s a soloist!  [See my Interview with Maxim Vengerov.]  Same thing with Itzhak and Pinchas and little Midori.  These are born soloists!

BD:    So you’re optimistic about the whole future of music?

ZM:    With the talent?  There is a tremendous amount of talent, but the very fine violinists should be trained to play in the best orchestras.  Then if they want to form a quartet, that’s fine too.  Or they can play in the orchestra and form a quartet.  That’s what we have in Israel.

BD:    I would think that the best orchestras would have a whole bunch of chamber ensembles within them.

ZM:    Felix Weingartner once engaged an entire string quartet and put it in the Vienna Philharmonic.  Isn’t that wonderful?  I have never done that.  With today’s union situation it would be impossible!  I knew that quartet in their old age.  When I first went to Vienna they were still around.  They were great players, and they’d never give up the quartet!  They had their annual subscription series in the concert house in Vienna.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Does it help you in your concert career to be a television superstar also?

ZM:    I think nobody in the classical field is a television superstar.

BD:    Even though you’re the conductor of the Three Tenors?

ZM:    That was two concerts only.  It’s not my doing that they repeat it ad nauseam!  [Both laugh]

BD:    But it puts you in that league.

mehta ZM:    No.  No, it doesn’t.  I would love to conduct my kind of programs on television.  In fact, with the New York Philharmonic, three times a year we did Live from Lincoln Center.  I loved to work those programs out with the producer and then do them, but those were live performances, and I think live performances have a great, positive value to them.

BD:    Does that make you at all schizophrenic
knowing that you’re playing for twenty-six hundred people behind you in Fischer Hall, and two million people on the television?

ZM:    No, no.  Not at all.  Last year we were in China with the Israel Philharmonic and we did a concert in the Great Hall of the People, which is, you know, where Mao used to speak.  Ten thousand people were in the auditorium!  That’s quite foreboding, but the television took it on their first channel all over China.  I don’t know how many people heard that, but you can be conscious of that, surely.  The next day we played in Shanghai, and we didn’t know that there was going to be television there, too.  In those countries you don’t argue.  [Both laugh]  I saw the television director so I said, “What is this?  Another national broadcast?”  He said, “No, this is only local broadcast.”  So I said, “How many people, about?”  He said, “Three hundred million.”  [Both laugh]  A local broadcast!

BD:    Is it special that the Israel Philharmonic is also hitting sixty?

ZM:    We have always had the same birthday year.  In fact, we were celebrating the Israel Philharmonic’s sixtieth birthday during the Christmas week this year because in 1936 that was the only week Toscanini was free to go and open there.  He gave them his Christmas week, so every year at Christmastime they celebrate their birthday.

BD:    It’s a special relationship that you have in Israel.

ZM:    I’ve been Music Director for twenty-five years, but I’ve been there for even more.  I started in ‘61.  In fact, we are coming to Chicago this year in April to start our American tour, and it will end on my birthday in Los Angeles with my three colleagues playing with me
Barenboim, Perlman and Zukerman.  [See my Interviews with Daniel Barenboim.]  So, I really look forward to this; it’s kind of a family concert.

BD:    Are you looking forward also to taking over in Munich?

ZM:    Very much.  As I said, I’ve never been a music director with an opera house, and I have accumulated, I feel, quite a big repertoire through the years.  It’s for the repertoire that I’m going there because opera houses like Munich, Vienna, Berlin exist a lot on repertoire.  This means no-rehearsal performances.  I can’t do that.  I’m not that much of a virtuoso opera conductor, so I will have a little rehearsal, but I’m looking forward to conducting Traviata with one rehearsal or Turandot with one rehearsal
or just one rehearsal per act where you put everything together.  The personnel of these opera houses function so well because that’s the way they have existed for over a hundred years.

BD:    All the rehearsals are for the new production, but then the revivals have no rehearsal.

ZM:    Yes.  I will do new productions, also, but I have a contract to conduct forty evenings a season.  There will be three new productions with eight performances each; that’s twenty-four.  The rest of the performances I will do at least three or four operas a couple of times each from the repertoire.

BD:    Are you going to jealously guard the works you want to do?

ZM:    But I don’t run the day-to-day operation as Music Director.  They have an Intendant, a general manager.  He’s in charge of the whole season.  He stays in his office every day, and he is now planning ’96-’97 or ’97-‘98.  I’ve already planned with him my new productions of the ’98-‘99 season; later we will put in the repertoire pieces.  I conduct forty evenings a year, and Peter Schneider, who’s a wonderful conductor with a great repertoire, will do thirty evenings.  So between us, seventy evenings are taken care of.  Then we have Italian conductors coming and doing repertoire.  There’s a wonderful conductor called Luisi.  He does a lot of repertoire in Vienna, Munich and Berlin.  He sort of pendulates between these three cities.  Then there’s a wonderful Australian lady, Simone Young.  Wonderful!  She does Rigoletto in Vienna one night, and Elektra in Munich the next night!  She is very able, so we use her a lot.

BD:    You conduct all over the world...

ZM:    I conduct where I want.  Sometimes that happens to be in a lot of places.  I’m going to be conducting in Amman, in Jordan, for the first time on the fifth of April.

BD:    With what orchestra?

ZM:    With the Amman Symphony or Philharmonic; I don’t even know their name.  It’s sort of a chamber-type orchestra.  But I feel, as a great friend of Israel, I have to make the first gesture, so I’m volunteering for the Queen of Jordan’s charity to conduct a concert for her, and thereby I will be able to talk about when I can bring the Israel Philharmonic to Jordan.

BD:    I would think it would be even more important to see when you could bring the Amman Symphony to Tel Aviv.

ZM:    Well, this is also possible.  Things between Jordan and Israel are picking up, especially in the business community by leaps and bounds. This friendship is developing much quicker than between Israel and Egypt because Israel always had a soft corner for the King of Jordan.  In Israel he was criticized much less for hugging Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War than in America.  The Israelis are Middle Easterners, so they know the situation.  They know that Jordan has no oil, so he needs Saddam.  If he doesn’t hug him, they’ll cut his throat, probably!  So he was not criticized as much.  On the whole, King Hussein of Jordan has also dealt with Israel very fairly all through the years.  He had to be in the Arab camp; they understood that.  So the Israeli tourists flood Petra, for instance.  It’s tremendous.  Anyway, I look forward to that.

BD:    Thank you once again for speaking with me about all of this.

ZM:    Thank you.


© 1993 & 1996 Bruce Duffie

These interviews were recorded in the office suite of the Civic Opera House in Chicago on December 8, 1993 and February 29, 1996.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1993, and twice in 1996.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2012.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.