Mehta's glamour, candor and love of the good life have, of course, made him an attractive target. And it doesn't help that he rarely censors himself. At rehearsals here the other day, for instance, somebody had tacked to a bulletin board backstage an Italian magazine opened to a photo of the maestro with a scantily clad Brazilian dancer during a South American tour. Walking by, Mehta saw the photo, laughed, and said he had better ones, including one of himself, the dancer and Mehta's wife Nancy.
Stuff like that may endear him to his fans, but it's only fodder for his detractors. While musicians here can't seem to say enough good things about his music-making, music critics generally talk first of the flash and the glitz. The Times' Martin Bernheimer might have been tough on him over the years in Los Angeles, but reviewers were similarly critical, if not worse, in New York.
At the end of Mehta's New York tenure, for instance, Newsday critic Tim Page wrapped up his 13 seasons saying, among other things, that "from this vantage point, the Mehta years seem little more than one long, loud cipher--a triumph of style over substance, of personal charisma over the art of making music."
Mehta indicates he's wounded less by comments like that than by inaccuracies in reporting such things as his recording history. He ticks off recent recordings--18 of them last year alone--and all the ones coming up in Berlin, Vienna, Israel and elsewhere. He says the press never forgave him for the lack of recordings during a three-year period in the mid-'80s: "They still say no record company wants to touch me. It's not true. I've been refusing recordings. . . . Should I take out (an) ad?"
Packed subscription audiences at the Music Center earlier this month were effusive, with heavy applause and standing ovations for Bruckner, Berg and violinist Midori, and Mehta indicates that, too, was a welcome change from New York. Yes, his last two seasons there he played to few empty seats, but put it in context: "They're an extremely faithful group. I wouldn't say they are the most enthusiastic of audiences, but they are there. They turn up."
Given his "Star Wars" and Frank Zappa concerts here and a production of "Tosca" next year in Rome that will take place around the clock all over the city, Mehta is asked why he didn't do more such unconventional programming in New York.
New York turned out to be much more conservative than anything he experienced in Los Angeles, Mehta replies. Talking about assorted "political pressures" there, he points to a "sort of self-destructive attitude toward their institutions. It's a constant fight against people trying to put you down, whether you're an artistic organization or a university or a sports team. I've never read such drastic newspaper articles about any sports team as they write about their own. In Chicago, they die for their teams. In New York, (if) they lose two games, they are the worst in the world."
Looking just at the New York Philharmonic, and not the entire social fabric of the city, does Mehta think he was correct in the '60s when he warned about the city chewing up its conductors? "They say it was the same with my two predecessors," Mehta shrugs, "but I can only talk about myself. I don't know about (his predecessors Pierre Boulez or Leonard Bernstein). I never even asked the musicians."
Let the Los Angeles Philharmonic's executive vice president and managing director Ernest Fleischmann answer that one: "It's happened to other conductors in New York. The prime example is Pierre Boulez, somebody else who this orchestra worships, (who) just didn't work in New York. And it took a long time for Leonard Bernstein to be acknowledged by the press and everybody in New York for the extraordinary artist that he was.
"They virtually killed Sir John Barbirolli and Dimitri Mitropoulos, who were both wonderful conductors and enjoyed enormous acclaim and success elsewhere. New York for a long time was a kind of conductor's graveyard. They're on a honeymoon with Kurt Masur for the moment."
So why shouldn't Mehta be happy to be home? "Coming back to Los Angeles for three days in the middle of a busy schedule was like having a 10-minute afternoon sleep," he says. "It just rejuvenated me."
His musical roots, too, are here. Born into a musical family in Bombay and trained in Vienna, Mehta first conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in January, 1961. When he took over the orchestra as music director at the start of the 1962-63 season, he was only 26. It is with the musicians here, he says matter-of-factly, "that I learned my profession."