When the media began headlining the Israeli-Lebanese conflict at the end of July, fans of the Israel Philharmonic might almost have expected to find the orchestra and its music director, Zubin Mehta, at the front, playing Bernstein or Mahler under fire to inspire the troops.
Founded in 1936 as the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic uniquely among the world's great orchestras represents a state under nearly constant threat of siege or war. Accordingly, since the Philharmonic is also one of the world's most active touring orchestras, it functions as a highly visible political agent.
In town in advance of the orchestra's three nights of Hollywood Bowl concerts that begin Tuesday, and perhaps thinking of Israel's image as a tough, generally unyielding customer in its dealing with Middle East neighbors, Mehta spoke plainly when he said that the orchestra's frequent tours "present the other face of Israel to the world."
He was emphatic, however, that he does not personally mix art and politics.
"I don't use the orchestra for politics at all," he said. "We don't have Israeli government propaganda following us everywhere or banners for Israel flying at our concerts. We go to the Salzburg Festival and play Mahler's Fifth like any other touring orchestra."
The fact remains, however, that Mehta's special bond with the Israel Philharmonic became world news under highly political circumstances. Although he had been conducting the orchestra since 1961, he dropped all other engagements during the Six Day War of 1967, flew to Tel Aviv and took over the helm of an orchestra suddenly left conductorless by a departing colleague, Erich Leinsdorf. Consequently, the popular imagination both in Israel and abroad has been fired by images of Mehta and his musical troops in the trenches.
Mehta discounts such melodrama. "We don't play in the trenches or on the front," he said. "Maybe you can take a solo violin, but not a whole orchestra." Still, his description of events during the Gulf War rings with valor. "When I arrived a day before the U.S. resolution, the atmosphere was tense, but I had to be there!" After two weeks of waiting, the Philharmonic played more than 20 daytime concerts in the Opera House in Jaffa until the cease fire.
"But you should understand," he added with a comedian's impish sense of timing, "we had to play those concerts because the subscribers wanted their money back, and we didn't want to give it to them."
Mehta said that any implicit mission the Israel Philharmonic may have to change perceptions has not been always successful. "The euphoria that existed all over the world in 1967 is just not there anymore," he explained. "Part of it is Israel's lack of public relations and part the Lebanese war of 1982 and the overstaying of Israel in Lebanon."
Whatever the reasons, Mehta and the Philharmonic seem to tour without end: After three weeks in Europe this spring, they are performing 10 concerts in six cities on the current North American tour, after which they head for South America. Next season's tours will be no less extensive: three weeks in the U.S. and Spain; a summer tour of France, Prague, Warsaw and Budapest; and, in late fall, Japan and perhaps India and China.
The 57-year-old Bombay-born Mehta looked fit and rested for a man who just last month conducted 12 Verdi Requiems in Israel, as well as nine Sibelius Seconds, one Haydn Mass and one Mahler Second--and made three compact discs. Among major works he will conduct at the Hollywood Bowl will be the Mahler and the Sibelius, along with the Sibelius Violin Concerto (with Midori as soloist) and Leonard Bernstein's "Jeremiah Symphony."
As for the health of the Philharmonic itself? Artistically strong and financially stable, Mehta said, although "there's competition in Tel Aviv now from a chamber orchestra and an opera company . . . and then there's cable television."
Another concern is the difficulty finding suitable guest conductors. Until his death, Bernstein served the Philharmonic "as the ideal guest conductor. Sometimes I would call him up and say, 'Look I can't take this tour with the Israel, do it for me,' and he would take them on tour.
"He was a terrific guy," Mehta added, sadness in his voice. "The orchestra misses him, I miss him, and he should have stayed on for at least 10 more years. He just didn't take care of himself. He burned candles at four ends."
So now, although Kurt Masur, Mehta's successor at the New York Philharmonic, guest conducts every year, such big names as Klaus Tennstedt and Daniel Barenboim only do so as their schedules permit. "The problem is, all great conductors now have two orchestras," he said.
But not Mehta. "I did it for 30 years," he said (in Montreal and Los Angeles, then in either Los Angeles or New York and Tel Aviv) "and I can't even listen to auditions anymore. The minute someone starts playing the A Major Violin Concerto of Mozart, I freeze."