While most were finding a way out of Israel during 1967’s Six Day War, Zubin Mehta flew in on a cargo plane, sitting between boxes of ammunition for frontline troops.
His friends, Israeli-Argentine pianist Daniel Barenboim and English cellist wife Jacqueline du Pre, were playing with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) whose maestro had fled. The Indian Parsi conductor could not leave them in the lurch. Such dedication, coupled with talent, led the IPO to confer on Mehta the title of Music Director for Life, 20 years after his first outing with the orchestra.
He will lead it at Mastercard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands on Nov 11, performing a local orchestration of our national anthem, Majulah Singapura. Famed for his technicality and expressive style, the maestro has performed on the world’s greatest stages in his five-decade career, including at The Three Tenors concerts in Rome and Los Angeles, and Chinese film director Zhang Yimou’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot in the Forbidden City, Beijing.
In a recent phone interview from California where he lives, the 78-year-old tells The Peak that he hopes music will bring the world closer.
Was it daunting for an Asian to be in a European community, when you studied at the Vienna Academy of Music in the 1950s?
There weren’t many Asians there then, only a few Japanese students. I was the only one from India. However, I felt no anxiety or discrimination, and was accepted wholeheartedly by the Viennese music community.
Music and the arts can reconcile a fragmented world. How do you think the IPO can play a role?
I hope the orchestra plays in Ramallah, Palestine, when it becomes a country. We will perform as a sign of friendship and peace.
Having conducted here on at least three occasions, what memories does Singapore hold for you?
I love your city’s order, discipline and cleanliness. When I finally arrived – and coming from India – I could not believe this was Asia. My first concert in 1984 was at Victoria Concert Hall. Then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew came, and I asked him to build a really big concert hall for Singapore. Now you have the Esplanade, and conducting there in 2005 was a wonderful experience.