Maestro Zubin Mehta turns 80 on 29 April, and a series of concerts in Mumbai with the Israel Philharmonic and soloists Pinchas Zukerman, Amanda Forsyth, Denis Matsuev, Andrea Bocelli, and Maria Katzarava mark this momentous milestone.
Information and music are so readily available today, literally at the click of a mouse or a touch of a screen, that it seems unreal to recollect how difficult it was back in the 1970s.
The only music I had access to at that time was the unwieldy spool tapes that fitted onto a machine that weighed a ton, and had very low sound fidelity, and LPs (long playing records, at 33 1/3 rpm or revolutions per minute), 78s (78 rpm) and 45s. Classical music was to be found mainly on the spool tapes and the LPs.
And before audio cassettes burst upon the scene, changing the way we listened to music, the only way to build one’s music library was to hunt for records, and Sinari’s near the Secretariat was the only place to go. But classical music was pretty hard to come by in those days. I remember Sinari’s once having an exhibition of Melodiya records from the USSR at Menezes Braganza for several days, and it was a treat to go there just to listen to the music. In retrospect, it was part of the Soviet bloc’s Cold War cultural diplomacy, but we weren’t complaining.
The 70s saw Zubin Mehta scaling unimaginable heights in the world of classical music, which few even today, let alone someone coming from India, could rival. At the age of 25, he had conducted three of the world’s major orchestras, the Vienna, Berlin and Israel Philharmonic orchestras. He was director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1962 to 1978, of the Israel Philharmonic in 1977, and of the New York Philharmonic in 1978, a post he would hold for 13 years, the longest in the orchestra’s history. Think of a contemporary conductor, and hardly any have had such a comparably astonishing, meteoric trajectory.
We read about Mehta in the Indian press, and whenever Time magazine covered his achievements. But through the 70s, as far as I could remember, there wasn’t any actual music accessible within India that we could listen to. In the music collection that my father brought back from Germany in 1970, we had nothing conducted by Mehta.
This is why I was so excited when CBS Gramophone Records and Tapes (India) Ltd saw fit to release in 1983 a recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto, played by Isaac Stern, and with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta. It remains etched in my memory, because it was a first of everything for me: the first time I would hear the Brahms Violin Concerto, the first time I would hear Stern play, and perhaps the first recording I would hear of the New York Philharmonic (it is possible that I might have heard them before on the radio via the BBC World Service’s wonderful Thursday request programme “the Pleasure is Yours”), and the first time I would hear Mehta conduct.
It was the first classical LP I remember buying. If I’m not mistaken, it cost Rs. 50, and I remember the short walk home, gingerly holding it right side up so the record wouldn’t roll out of its sleeve!
My dad’s LP collection featured largely German or Austrian orchestras, and the programme notes on their sleeves were usually in German, if at all. So it was refreshing to hear an ‘American’ sound. And I could read about the music in English for a change.
The striking, arresting cover photograph was taken by Bill King, who (although I didn’t know it then) was one of the most acclaimed fashion photographers of his time, a regular on Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Vanity Fair, the toast of the Milan and Paris fashion elite, and whose “exuberant images celebrated youth and optimism”. He seemed a more likely choice for a Rolling Stone cover (and indeed he was, often) than for the front of a classical music LP.
King has an unbelievably youthful Mehta looking us straight in the eye, while Stern looks somewhat self-consciously away, his violin scroll cradled against his left collarbone. The picture has a grainy quality that somehow makes it look hip and dignified at the same time.
The programme notes were written by one Joscelyn Godwin, and they helped me right then, to start ‘joining the dots’, as it were, when it came to musical history. For instance, she points out that Brahms had completed his Second Symphony a year before this concerto, “and it seems as if that particular mine of musical inspiration was not yet exhausted, for the Violin Concerto is almost like a sister piece”.
I happened to have the Second Symphony in our collection, so was able to listen and compare. And yes, the similarities were indeed there: similar opening statements, both in triple meter, both in D major. And “as in the symphony, strength is always tempered with gentleness”. It was thrilling to be able to hear exactly what she meant.
But even she couldn’t resist slipping in some contemporary culture: karate and kung-fu were big by then, hoo-haa-ing into film and music (remember ‘Kung Fu fighting’ by Biddu, sung by Carl Douglas, now making a comeback with Kung Fu Panda 3). So I was tickled pink by the way she concludes her programme note: “Yet just before the end there is a moment of calm, as if to show that neither Brahms nor his performers are allowing themselves to be swept along in a mindless race for the finish — the gesture of a karate master who can stop a blow a hair’s breadth from its target”.
To this day, I cannot hear the finale of the Brahms Violin Concerto without this imagery in my head. I’ve been hooked on to reading programme notes ever since.
All these thoughts come rushing at me as I remember the first time I “heard” Zubin Mehta. Little did I know then that I’d hear him and the New York Philharmonic in Mumbai barely two years later.
Happy 80th, Maestro! May you have many many more, filled with good health, happiness and great music!
(An edited version of this article was published on 24 April 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)