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Friday, February 25, 2011

Conductor Zubin Mehta returns to Seattle — this time with Israeli orchestra

Zubin Mehta says the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra "has been my musical family for 50 years."

An interview with Zubin Mehta, who will conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra on Feb. 26, 2011.

Zubin Mehta's most recent memory of Seattle includes conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the Seattle Center Opera House (now McCaw Hall), followed by some serious downtime.

"I went to Milton Katims' house and played pingpong," says Mehta by phone from Tel Aviv. Katims was the Seattle Symphony Orchestra's music director from 1954 to 1976.

Recalling the performance, Mehta adds, "I thought the Opera House was a very good hall."

Chances are Mumbai, India-born Mehta, one of the world's best-known orchestral and operatic conductors, will equally appreciate Benaroya Hall when he returns to the city on Saturday, this time with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO).

The IPO is on an eight-city tour of the United States, celebrating two significant anniversaries. The ensemble, originally known as the Palestine Orchestra at its inception in 1936, turns 75 this year. Mehta's own association with the organization goes back 50 years, to a night in 1961 when, at age 25, he filled in for ailing conductor Eugene Ormandy.

That rescue led to a long-term relationship including Mehta's appointments as IPO's music adviser in 1969 and music director in 1977. During his five decades there, Mehta also served as music director of the L.A. Phil (1962-1978), the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (1960-1967) and the New York Philharmonic (1978-1991).

Of all these roles, Mehta clearly finds his responsibilities toward IPO among the most special and unique in his life.

"The orchestra has been my musical family for 50 years," he says. "I'm very attached. This is a hand-picked orchestra that has always been engaged."

Founded by Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, the IPO was intended to inspire a new nation by uniting "the desire of [Israel] for an orchestra with the desire of the Jewish musicians for a country."

Huberman gathered first-chair, European musicians who had lost their jobs under the Nazis, a kind of "orchestra of soloists." Musicians play a major part in running the IPO to this day.

"We're not supported by a rich government," says Mehta, "We have to cut corners continuously. The musicians don't give themselves raises every few years. To get close to breaking even, we do seven concerts a week, six when we tour. I don't deal with a board of governors. I sit with three members of the orchestra and a general manager to shape our destiny. The musicians are driven by dedication, not just earning a living. They are carriers of a positive message for their country, including during times of crisis."

Saturday's program includes Beethoven's popular "Leonore" Overture No. 3, Webern's "Passacaglia" and Six Pieces for Orchestra, and Mahler's epic Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor.

"My tastes are Viennese," Mehta says, "so I love this program, and it suits the orchestra."

Speaking of another long tenure as a music director, Mehta marvels at Gerard Schwarz's 26 years with Seattle Symphony Orchestra. He also perks up at the mention of Ludovic Morlot as Schwarz's successor.

"Oh! He was recently invited to conduct the Israel Philharmonic for a second time," Mehta says. "It was a good success before. The orchestra likes him."