Zubin Mehta

«I’ve got heaps of time, I’m a young man!»

The interview was taken by Vera Glushkova

Zubin Mehta

Zubin Mehta is the most prominent conductor of the present day. It seems banal to begin a story about such a fabulous man from trite words. What stands behind them? He has conducted, perhaps, all well-known orchestras, he has performed with all famous soloists and he has toured all countries of the world. An Internet search engine will offer 50 thousand links if you type in his name. He is 79 now, but one can learn about it only from a booklet, as maestro looks some 30 years younger. In March, this great Hindu came to Moscow literally for one day, to perform at Rostropovich Festival with his Maggio Musicale Fiorentino orchestra. Very calm and benevolent, he welcomed us as if we knew each other for ages. He kissed us all twice on both cheeks “by Russian tradition”, as he himself said, and then remembered that the kisses should be triple. Settling himself in an armchair, he started to leaf through the January issue of MusicuM, scrutinizing the pictures.


Denis Matsuev and Maggio Musicale Fiorentino orchestra headed by Zubin Mehta 
Moscow, Tchaikovsky concert hall

- Is this Thomas Mann?

 Yes.

 - He lived 5 miles away from us. A nice man he was. And this is Valery.

Exactly, this is Valery Gergiev.

 - Lets talk about Valery. He is my friend. I’ve invited him to Israel a thousand times, but he’s always busy. Say hi to him from me and remind him about my invitation. Is this Cogan?

Right, Leonid Cogan.

- Cogan! Once I invited him to my friends in Beverly Hills after a concert in Los Angeles. Jascha Heifetz was also there. And Cogan sat down on the floor. He couldn’t sit on one level with Heifetz, because he couldn’t sit on god’s level. Heifetz was a god, a violin god. And who’s this?

Dmitry Kabalevsky, Soviet composer.

- I didnt know him. At last I’ve seen a person unknown to me in your magazine. Cliburn, Temirkanov, Matsuev… I know them all. Matsuev won your Tchaikovsky Competition. Last week I performed with another winner of this competition, violinist Itamar Zorman. He is very young. He is very good. And today I play with Boris Berezovsky, he’s also a winner, but I don’t know him yet.  

When we hear that some musician has won Tchaikovsky Competition, this is impressive.

- Frankly speaking, there are only two important contests: Tchaikovsky Competition and Queen Elisabeth Competition. But I’ll reveal a big secret to you: more often we simply recommend good soloists to one another. If Barenboim calls me and says that some guy is an excellent violinist, I won’t hesitate to invite him, because Barenboim won’t be mistaken, alike the jury.

Nowadays no victory can guarantee one a full house, unfortunately. I often ask this question to musicians: what are the reasons for today’s crisis in classical music, and how could it be overcome?

- To get public is the biggest problem. However, we don’t have this problem here in Israel. Neither do we have it in Florence. I rehearse La Traviata in Florence now. Four shows are sold out already, as well as the open rehearsals. However, in the same Florence only 500 people came to see Berg’s Wozzek. In America, we have full houses only in New York and Los Angeles, and in the central part of the country, we don’t. In Israel we organize the so-called “jeans concerts”. You can come dressed in jeans or in anything at all. There’s pop music in the foyer before the concert, and the concert itself lasts for 1 hour 15 minutes. Well-known media persons act as anchormen.

The orchestra wears jeans too?

- Yes, but not me. I put on jeans only once, when my wife and I travelled to Antarctica. Only ice, it was fantastic. And, of course, penguins, albatrosses, icebergs… It was my best holiday ever.


Zubin Mehta  and The Three Tenors.Live in Los Angeles, 1994

You know, Mstislav Rostropovich performed in Arctic.

- Did he really? Bravo. I think that Rostropovich was the greatest musician of the 20th century. I always come to his festivals in Moscow and Baku. I have performed with him a lot. But I’ve never performed with Galina, “Queen” Galina. I was at their concert in Salzburg, where she sang Russian songs and Strauss, and Slava accompanied. It was staggering, incredible, a sensation. Then they invited me home and treated me to pancakes (blini) which Galina cooked herself, can you imagine that? I also had very tasty pancakes at the Baikal, with Denis Matsuev. We went boating and swam in icy water, because it was autumn. And then there were these fabulous pancakes. They were so thin that you could see through them. I don’t eat caviar, so I ate them with sour cream (blini with smetana).

Denis Matsuev and Zubin Mehta

I know that Emil Gilels and Vladimir Gorowitz were among your friends.

- I have performed together with Gilels many times: in La Scala, Montreal, Los Angeles. I loved him very much, he was a wonderful man. Once in New York we were recording a concert by Tchaikovsky. You can imagine the sum of our fees. Well, Gilels received only 600 dollars, and the rest went to GOSKONCERT. Such were the times. I invited him and his wife for lunch, but we didn’t know what to do with two KGB agents. We forged a plan: at 10:45 sharp I came to the hotel by car, Emil and his wife hopped in and I gave full throttle. Then we went to a supermarket, and they walked it as if it were a museum. It’s a very sad thing to recollect.

Horowitz was the very reverse to Gilels. He was very benevolent, but his wife was a severe woman. A hurricane! Vanda, she was Toscanini’s daughter. She wanted to control everything and she bossed everyone around. Once she phoned the concert manager and demanded a box of champagne to the dressing room. And he replied: you can buy it yourself for the money I pay you!

It was bliss to perform together with Horowitz. The best concerto was the Third Rakhmaninov’s in Los Angeles, before the New York performance. You sure know this famous New York record. It’s a shame it wasn’t Los Angeles. He was always terribly nervous in New York. I should say that he got rattled before each performance of his, always. “No, no, I won’t go there, no, I won’t!” And it was a Pan-American and Pan-European TV broadcast, maybe the first one in history. He was terribly stressed, and it’s really noticeable for the first couple of minutes. Then it all snapped into place, he played like god. We were great friends. Once he invited me to his house together with Richard Widmark, the one who always played bandits. Horowitz played us melodies from Russian operas on his grand piano, and we naturally couldn’t recognize a single one. He grew up on them and he was upset that we didn’t know them. Horowitz was a friend of Nathan Milstein’s. Once I performed with Milstein in New York, and Horowitz came and took a box right next to the stage. Poor Milstein got into a fuss and started to blunder. He has never made mistakes, but for this concert. I blame it on Horowitz!

 Whom do you consider the greatest composer?

 - Before the war, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. After the war, Lutoslavsky and Shostakovich. Lutoslavsky is a genius, I have conducted his works many times. 

What Russian composers do you like?

- Once I had breakfast with Gorbachev in Berlin. He asked me the same question. I answered: Tchaikovsky. And suddenly he cried out: “Why not Rakhmaninov?!” Simply amazing! But I’ve never conducted ballets by Tchaikovsky, and this is very, very important. My dream is to stage The Queen of Spades. I’ve got heaps of time, I’m a young man!

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