Though it has been nine years since Zubin Mehta resigned as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which he led from 1962 to 1978, he has not become a stranger to either the orchestra or this city. "I have a few homes, and Los Angeles is certainly one of them," the conductor exclaims.
From a purely domestic point of view, it may be the home. At least, it is his official residence for tax purposes.
Ironically, it is that residence here that has kept him from the local podium in recent years. Mehta returned as a guest conductor in each of the first three seasons following his departure for the New York Philharmonic, and it began to interrupt his private life.
"Whenever I would come to Los Angeles, I was always here at work and never at home," Mehta explained in his Music Center dressing room recently.
During his first season (1978-79) with the New York Philharmonic, for example, Mehta spent more than three weeks here in February, conducting four different programs. He reappeared here frequently through the Hollywood Bowl season in 1981. Since then, he has lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic on its European tour in 1983, substituting for an ailing Carlo Maria Giulini. (Which he says did not please his family, as he had planned a vacation for that time period.) He also conducted the orchestra in opening the Orange County Performing Arts Center in September, 1986.
This season, however, a sabbatical from his New York job has allowed Mehta to make a musical return in a big way. He has just finished five concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, leading a program matching the first West Coast performances of George Crumb's "A Haunted Landscape" with Mahler's Second Symphony, a work that he conducted many times during his 16-year tenure with the L.A. Philharmonic.
Next Sunday, Mehta leads the first of six performances of "Tristan und Isolde," a new production of the Music Center Opera, in association with the Philharmonic. Knowing that he would be rehearsing Wagner's opera while giving the orchestral concerts, he chose the Mahler symphony with stylistic congruity in mind.
"We don't know the trunk of the tree which bears the fruit we know so well," Mehta says regarding the inexperience of symphonic orchestras with the body of Wagner's music, which he sees as the forebear of Mahler.
"It's interesting to work with a symphony orchestra doing an opera for the first time. You start at another level," compared with opera orchestras, Mehta states. "Symphony orchestras put their whole heart into it."
This particular symphony orchestra presents an odd mix of the familiar and the strange to Mehta. He sees many new faces, but there are "still a few people here who were here before me."
Musically, Mehta does not hear much difference. "Most of the soloists, I hired." He says the orchestra is a flexible one, which can and should change its tone and style for each piece.
"I never understood what the 'Philadelphia sound' meant, or why it was a compliment that they had a single characteristic sound," Mehta mused, adding quickly that he very much admires the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Whether he himself has changed is a question he leaves to others to answer. "It's a question of evolution," he says.
Los Angeles Philharmonic Executive Director Ernest Fleischmann agrees, saying that there hasn't been any sudden change, but rather a steady maturation. "I think there is a security and a kind of conviction in what Zubin does nowadays. . . . he is afraid of nothing." Fleischmann finds that security reflected in performance, stating that "more than ever he has an easy and warm rapport with the musicians. . . . There's a lot of love on that stage, which contributes immensely to the performance."
Mehli Mehta, long familiar to Los Angeles audiences as the music director of the American Youth Symphony, hears "a tremendous change" in his son, musically. "I think that there has been a great maturity, a great mellowness, a greater understanding of the music over the years," he says.
Personally, the stocky conductor still cuts a familiar, though slightly fleshier, figure. Now 51, he laments being 10 pounds overweight, while finishing a piece of strawberry cheesecake with gusto.
The opera cast offers a similar variety of old and new colleagues to the conductor. He has not worked directly before with William Johns or Jeannine Altmeyer, who sing the title roles, though he has led performances with most of the rest of the singers.
Mehta has played a large role himself in the development of this production. "From the outset, every singer has been approved by me," he says. "I couldn't do it otherwise."
The work of stage director Jonathan Miller is familiar to Mehta, as they collaborated on a "Tosca" in Florence. Working with designer David Hockney, however, has been a new experience, which the conductor seems to have enjoyed.