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For Seniors : LINDA FELDMAN : To This Maestro, Great Music Is No 'Crazy Thing'--It Is Life Itself

October 23, 1994|LINDA FELDMAN

To speak with Mehli Mehta is to be caught in a firestorm of passion where the eye is music.

There are the usual adjectives that apply to the maestro: elegant, intense, charming, handsome, exuberant. But there's defiance and impatience, too.

As music director and conductor of the American Youth Symphony, Mehta, 86, stands as a barrier against mediocrity while helping shape the professional lives of young musicians.

"Ask me what makes me do this crazy thing?" he says with the animation of a much younger man. And then he answers with his next breath. "Great music is not crazy. It's the way we do it that is crazy."

Mehta, whose renowned son, Zubin, is life conductor of the Israeli Philharmonic and a guest conductor all over the world, rehearses his 110 musicians--all of them between the ages of 16 and 25--for 3 1/2 hours each week.

Today at their rehearsal at UCLA, they are tackling Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique."

"Forte!" he shouts. "I don't want your pity. I want your effort." He taps the baton. "Come on, let's go." He's displeased with the horn section. "This is not pianisimo, this is a monster! I make the effort. You make the effort or don't play in my orchestra!"

The drums come too early. It breaks the tension. Everyone laughs. So does the maestro. They try it again. He leans back and lowers the baton. "This is about the French Revolution. These are mad people, not ladies and gentlemen strolling on Madison Avenue. One bad note kills my inspiration!"

Another try and the music brings chills. "Thank you," he says and wipes his brow.

They don't fear him. They take their licks well and when he says, "This is a big orchestra; it takes a big mentality," there's love in the air.

They chat and joke. But there's total quiet when he speaks.

No one is there for anything frivolous--not with Mehta. He is their conductor but he is also their teacher. He uses his wisdom to prepare them for a life of music.

Mehli Mehta was born in Bombay, India, to a life of music. He chose to play the violin at the age of 6 after hearing the great Jascha Heifetz. It was the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and Mozart, not the music of India, that touched his soul. Although he founded the Bombay Symphony Orchestra in 1935 and later the Bombay String Quartet, his destiny was in the West.

"I was a mistake," he said. "I should have been born in Europe. In my 25 years playing in India, not one Hindu, not one Moslem came to my concerts. Only the English and the Americans came."

By way of London, Philadelphia (where he appeared as conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra) and New York, Mehta moved to Los Angeles in 1964 and was appointed director of the orchestra department at UCLA.

Within two months of his arrival, he organized the American Youth Symphony with university students from throughout the city. He is the only leader the group has ever known.

"He's great. He lives for this," said Jonathan Wilson, 25, who plays in the horn section, which, on this day, Mehta criticizes for being sloppy. "He'd keep us until we're 40 if he could. He's got a loud bark, but he really cares about the music."

Every prospective member of the orchestra auditions for Mehta. He usually asks candidates three questions: their age, whom they study with (he does not accept someone who is not studying with a reputable teacher) and whether they are willing to commit to 3 1/2 hours of rehearsals every Saturday.

By the time they leave, his charges will have performed all the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak, plus the last six symphonies of Mozart, five of Mahler, two of Bruckner and all the Strauss tone poems.

"What is nine years to learn symphonic literature?" he asks. "It takes a lifetime. They know nothing. Nine years is nothing."

He calls himself a benign dictator, but adds that every conductor is a dictator. He's accused of being tough, which he admits, but he is also accused of loving his orchestra, which he also admits.

Twelve of his "boys" are in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Cynthia Phelps is first viola in the New York Philharmonic. John Yah is a leading clarinet player in the Chicago Symphony. Altogether, more than 90 former members have gone on to join professional orchestras in the United States, Canada, Europe, Israel and South America.

Yehudi Menuhin, Midori, Andre Watts and many other artists have performed free with the orchestra. Next year, cellist Yo-Yo Ma will perform at the orchestra's 30th annual gala benefit concert. The gala is the only time admission is charged to the group's performances. The orchestra is completely dependent on, as Mehta says, his "55 beautiful ladies" of the board of directors who are responsible for its financial well-being.

The 30th concert season will also feature guest conductors as part of the search for the eventual successor to Mehta. "I'm not going to retire," he insists. "God knows when I do that I might as well roll into my coffin. When I can't do my best, then I will step down."

The American Youth Symphony performs Nov . 6 at 8 p.m. at the Wadsworth Theatre. Admission is free. For information, call the American Youth Symphony office at (310) 476-2825.

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