Zubin Mehta: A Life Devoted to Music

By Benjamin Goron

Last February 5, OSM Conductor Emeritus Zubin Mehta took the podium at the Maison symphonique for a historic concert, 60 years after leading the Orchestra on its first international tour. Maestro Mehta gave pride of place to Wagner and Brahms in a richly evocative evening. The event will be webcast starting February 15.

From Bombay to Vienna: Discovery of Great Repertoire

Zubin Mehta was born in Bombay on April 29, 1936, into a Parsi minority family. He studied in a Jesuit institution in a predominantly Hindu region. This peaceful cohabitation with other cultures and religions was to mark his life’s work, where eclecticism and openness were defining elements. The Mehta household was steeped in music: his mother Tehmina was a pianist, and his father Mehli, a violinist and founder of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. Zubin, who played the piano, occasionally assisted his father, and quickly developed a taste and proficiency for conducting. Subsequently, he travelled to Vienna to study from 1954 to 1957 with the highly sought-after master Hans Swarovsky—himself a student of Richard Strauss and Schoenberg. When the young Zubin arrived in Vienna, he experienced a massive “sound shock” upon hearing the Vienna Philharmonic perform in the Musikverein under Karl Böhm. He also took the opportunity to learn the double bass, to fully understand the reality of a musician within the orchestra.

Montreal: A Burgeoning Orchestra

As a supremely gifted young conductor enthusiastically recommended by his mentors, Zubin Mehta was invited to conduct the OSM at the Montreal Forum in 1960. The chemistry between the Orchestra and him was so obvious that OSM administrator Pierre Béique offered him the position of Music Director that very same evening. For Zubin Mehta, it was the beginning of a love affair with the OSM and of a lasting friendship with Pierre Béique. Aged only 24, he had obtained his first position as a music director; in 1962 he led the Orchestra on its first tour to Europe; and he conducted his first opera (Tosca) with the OSM in 1963 in its brand-new hall, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. This string of successes soon attracted the attention of other symphony orchestras.

We are the caretakers of this incredible museum, from Bach to the day before yesterday.

– Zubin Mehta

From Los Angeles to Kashmir: The Journey of a Citizen of the World

During his career, Zubin Mehta was at the helm of the symphony orchestras of Los Angeles (1962–1978), New York (1978–1991), Israel (1977–2019) and of the Bavarian State Opera (1993–2006). Not only did he gain international renown in monumental repertoires such as those of Mahler, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, or Beethoven, but he never hesitated to take a political stand through music in the name of peace and human understanding. He brought together German and Israeli orchestras for a concert near the former Nazi camp of Buchenwald; gave a concert in Kashmir during hostilities, and in the ruins of the Sarajevo Library in the middle of the Yugoslav civil war; he militated to allow musicians of Arab origin to join the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Throughout his thoroughly inspiring musical career, he constantly strove to reveal the grandeur and depth of classical music as much as its potential to convey a message of peace. The historic reunion between the OSM and Zubin Mehta will be available for webcast on February 15.