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Mehta's Forte: Making His Own Kind Of Music

August 16, 1986|DONNA PERLMUTTER

A single tree-shaded lane winds up to the rustic Spanish villa high above fashionable Brentwood Park. If one didn't know better, this secluded, sprawling paradise--with separate guest house and a gleaming white Rolls-Royce parked in the three-portal garage--might be a country estate outside some European capital.

It befits Zubin Mehta.

After all, he is one of the rich and famous--a jet-set maestro, equally comfortable in Florence or Vienna, London or New York. But the erstwhile director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic still calls Southern California home.

All roads--and orchestras--seem to lead here, where the dashing Bombay-born conductor, then 26, first made his name.

Last week Mehta sat with the Royce Hall audience while his New York Philharmonic managed to follow the flamboyant ministrations of its laureate conductor, Leonard Bernstein. Then, over the past several days, Mehta witnessed Andre Previn standing before his former orchestra at Hollywood Bowl.

And starting Tuesday, he takes the podium there for a weeklong stint with his Israel Philharmonic--the group he has remained faithful to throughout the other tenures and which has named him "music director for life," the band he led at the front during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Even though this is his most enduring relationship, it does not lack controversy. In fact, everywhere Mehta goes, controversy seems to follow.

"We make beautiful music together," he says, gazing out on the triple-tiered terrace and laughing as he adds the Yiddish expression, " a zoy gezogt (so it is said)."

"There's great love between us," says the man who regards himself as an honorary Jew. "But our communication is Israeli style. In Tel Aviv there's no such thing as quiet acceptance. Everything gets argued back and forth. The players take a lot from me because we're like family. I can say anything. And they, the same."

Riots actually broke out when, several years ago, Mehta tried proselytizing for Wagner, the composer whose music was championed by the Nazis and played in the death camps survived by many in the Israeli population.

After a regular concert program, he had planned to add the Prelude and "Liebestod" from "Tristan und Isolde," with the understanding that objectors in the audience or on stage could leave before the unlisted Wagner.

"Two musicians made a pronounced exit," he explains, "one in a great show of contempt. What a tsimes (fuss)! But I felt it was important to try. How can an orchestra jump from Beethoven and Mozart to the new Viennese composers without making the crucial link with Wagner?"

Mehta, whose blazing heroism offstage is possibly more real than that which he projects so well for all those televised performance close-ups, doesn't limit himself to Israeli affairs. He says he recently turned down an offer to tour Chile with the New York Philharmonic "on political grounds," referring to the Pinochet government.

"Maybe a business deal with the U.S. will be canceled as a result. Too bad. I never sang 'Vissi d'arte' (Tosca's aria about living exclusively for art) in my life. I won't start now."

If he wanted to, Mehta could recite a long list of his good works through music for sociopolitical causes. Not least of them are his odysseys with the Los Angeles Philharmonic to Watts and with the New Yorkers to Harlem; his diplomatic coup in Buenos Aires whereby he helped to mend the U.S.-Argentine rift after the 1982 Falklands conflict.

"We're not very powerful," he says, referring to those in the music world. "But we cannot afford to waste an opportunity. Whether it's South Africa or Chile, taking a stand is basic."

There are other, more raging battles for the maestro.

During his 16-year tenure with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Mehta was at once a matinee idol of the blue-rinse brigade and a favorite target of critical barbs. Since 1978, when he left for the not-so-hospitable Eastern climes, he has seen what full-scale war is like as waged by the anti-boosterist New York press.

Mehta seems to take his lumps, however, with greater tolerance than before. He says he feels almost vindicated in terms of longevity.

"Neither Bernstein nor Boulez lasted as long as I will have," he says, citing a contract that extends through 1990 (with a sabbatical he will take for 1987). "But if they couldn't stick it out (for another round), why should I?

"Since age 24, I have always held a symphonic post," he says. "I can't imagine taking yet a new one. And there are some things I have not done. Bayreuth, for instance, keeps inviting me. But I can't see sitting in Germany for a whole summer. And besides, then I wouldn't be available to Israel. That's a sacrifice I cannot make--not even for Wagner."

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