Zubin Mehta Speaks Out
The maestro slams artistic boycotts and Israel’s Palestinian stance as his Philharmonic visits Carnegie Hall
What Israelis value, Mayer added, is Mehta’s loyalty to the orchestra and the state itself. In times of war and crisis, he has often canceled other commitments to perform with the IPO. During the ’67 war, he left a Met tour to catch the last plane to Israel before the Tel Aviv airport closed. And in the 1991 Gulf War, he conducted performances during scud missile attacks. “Israelis remember such things,” Mayer said. Such devotion has earned him the right to criticize the state and orchestra he has adopted. And criticize he does.
“I wish that only three residents of Tel Aviv could see what conditions on the West Bank are like,” Mehta told me. “Living in such proximity, most Israelis have no idea about the adversity on the West Bank.” He goes to Ramallah to look in on the music program sponsored by his friend Daniel Barenboim. “So, I see the conditions. Israel gives the West Bank water twice a week! One way of promoting good would be not to ration water.”
Most Israelis are unaware of these conditions, he added. “They don’t know. But many don’t want to know.”
Yet Israeli culture, said Mehta, has come into its own—despite the IPO’s continued unwillingness to perform Richard Wagner—with new chamber music and folklore groups, ballet companies, and theater groups bringing Israeli culture to the world, and the work of Israeli and Jewish artists into the global mainstream.
Thursday’s concert at Carnegie Hall was a prime example, he said, a “milestone” in which all three pieces were written by composers of Jewish extraction—Arnold Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre; Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25; and the showcase of the program, “Revival of the Dead,” by Noam Sheriff.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1935, Sheriff is one of Israel’s best-known, most versatile composers. Commissioned by a wealthy Dutch fashion designer who survived the Holocaust and wanted to pay tribute to the Jews who perished, the symphony has four movements that offer a narrative of Jewish history—Jewish life before the Diaspora until the Holocaust, the genocide itself, the Kaddish and Yizkor, and revival and renaissance in Israel. Sheriff said he wrote the symphony while teaching in Cologne, Germany. His wife, Ella Milch-Sheriff, who is also a composer, described her husband to me as “annoyingly terribly talented.”
Noam Sheriff was thrilled, he told me over breakfast with Ella at Balthazar’s in downtown New York, when Mehta told him that he would perform the piece this year at the Salzburg Music Festival, Europe’s and perhaps the world’s most prestigious musical venue. “Never, in my wildest dreams,” he said, “did I think it would be performed in Salzburg.” Sheriff describes Mehta as “sensitive, intelligent, and modest. There’s no big ego. Working with him is a joy.”
And despite the threats of boycotts and disruptions, Thursday night’s sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall went off without a hitch. Across the street, 60 protesters were clamoring against the presence of the IPO in New York in light of the conditions that Mehta described and complained about.
Would he have joined them if he weren’t conducting? I asked him. “No!” he replied. That’s neither his style nor his way. “I believe in music.”
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