Zubin Mehta – The Los Angeles Years



From the outset of the formation of Eloquence, the series championed the recordings of Zubin Mehta, many of which had never been released on CD. Several of these were recorded with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the first major orchestra Mehta was to conduct. Cyrus Meher-Homji reflects on Mehta’s seminal LA years.

Lunchtime on the top floor of Los Angeles’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the 1960s must have been something of a celebrity, “you’ll never guess who I spotted today” event. Having taken over as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1962, Zubin Mehta’s flamboyance allied with his dashing good looks created something of a midday buzz. Always known for carrying a handful of hot red chillies in his pockets to spice up the occasional meal, as the young conductor doused his bland American food with Tabasco, the ladies of the Philharmonic (those responsible for fund-raising and administrative tasks) gawped as the young maestro went about his business.


So it was that he became “Zubi Baby” to some, much to his own chagrin and completely at odds with the serious, creative, driven side of his personality. Charisma though, he had in loads, and, on more occasions than it was warranted, led to his musicianship being equated with showmanship for its own sake. The more conservative members of the musical press were the first to complain – too much Tabasco, too little substance, they seemed to suggest.


Zubin Mehta was born in Bombay, India, on 29 April 1936. His father, Mehli, was himself a violinist and conductor, and a pioneer of (western) classical music in India. Noted for building the Bombay Symphony Orchestra, when, in 1949, he returned from violin studies in New York with Ivan Galamian, he found his orchestra disbanded, and had to start from scratch to rebuild it. The fourteen-year-old Zubin who learned the piano, was appointed assistant manager and librarian and his tasks ranged from arranging chairs to arranging orchestral parts. With instruments – not to mention players – being scarce, imagination was called for and when, on one occasion, there was no third horn player, Zubin transcribed the B-flat horn part to E-flat so that a Bengali saxophonist could play it. When, once, the strings were rehearsing the Mendelssohn Octet and the second cellist was missing, Zubin was there to sing the part! An unavailable cor anglais for another piece was quickly transposed for viola.


Creativity and imagination abounded in the young Mehta and his father, perhaps sensing that great things were to come, started him on violin lessons while continuing his piano studies. But like all teenage boys, practice wasn’t always high on the agenda for the young Zubin and Mehli recalls how, “instead of practising after school, he would sneak out and play cricket. The whole crux of the matter was that my son had no intention of becoming an instrumentalist.” So, his parents prepared him for a career in medicine and he began his premedical training at Bombay’s St. Xavier’s College. As the story goes, medicine was the last thing the young Zubin wished to pursue and once, at an anatomy class, when reprimanded by the lecturer for dreaming rather than dissecting his dogfish, he retorted, “Cut it up yourself” and tossing the specimen into the air, stalked out of the room.


In October 1954, then eighteen, he boarded a ship for Italy and upon disembarking there took a train to Vienna to pursue his life’s ambition. Under the strict, somewhat dry tutorship of Hans Swarowsky, Mehta was quickly imbibed in Viennese musical life.


Decca’s legendary producer John Culshaw first met Mehta as an eighteen-year-old in Vienna and immediately recognising his potential wished to sign him, but, as he explains in his autobiography Putting the Record Straight, “could not get a start for him with Decca until years later when he became conductor of the Los Angeles Orchestra, in succession to Georg Solti’s brief tenure in that city”. A complicated political situation ensued within Decca at the time. Solti was something of an artistic figurehead in the company and there was enmity between him and Mehta, which stemmed from his feeling that Mehta, who had initially been appointed his assistant in Los Angeles, had betrayed him and “taken over”. “In fact, if anyone betrayed Solti,” Culshaw explains, “it was the management of the orchestra,” who appointed Mehta as director without consulting the Hungarian. In his autobiography The Score of My Life (first published in German as Die Partitur meines Lebens) Mehta recounts that he learned of Solti’s resignation from the Los Angeles Philharmonic when reading an article in Time magazine. “The whole thing was caused by a string of misunderstandings and clumsy moves, and Solti did not forgive me for many years,” he writes. Their paths crossed several times given both were principal conductors of American orchestras (Mehta the LAPO, Solti the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) and both were contracted to Decca: “The president of [Decca] always gave Solti precedence whenever a repertoire was being recorded. For me this was a given, and I did not mind at all. Our relationship was quite strained for twenty years.”


Mehta’s full-time appointment in 1962 to and Solti’s abandonment of the LAPO caused “a big scandal and a lot of excitement in Los Angeles” according to Mehta. For one thing, various city executives wanted to placate Solti (who stuck to his decision to quit). For another, the orchestra found itself with a younger, and at the time, relatively unknown conductor. But, things fell into place. Mehta’s tenure with the orchestra until 1978, and the enduring quality of the recordings, provides the obvious proof of the fruits of this relationship. Given his training in Vienna, Mehta was pleased to find that the orchestra he took over included several musicians who had come to the United States as immigrants from Europe and were therefore schooled in a style he was familiar with. His first bassoonist had played under Arthur Nikisch in Berlin. Several members had worked extensively under Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer and Josef Krips. “I took the musicians’ vast experience as a challenge, and yet it was also a wonderful chance for me to pick up the thread of this musical history.”


Parallel to working with European musicians in the LAPO, Mehta also brought along with him instruments from Europe. From the Vienna Philharmonic’s principal trumpet Helmut Wobisch he brought along a mouthpiece for the trumpet which he then had reproduced in Los Angeles. Its altogether warmer sound was ideally suitable for their recording of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony: “There should be no coarseness at the end of a Bruckner symphony or in Brahms. The brass should blend smoothly with the orchestral sound, to which trumpets are very important.” The lighter French bow for double basses was replaced for Austro-German repertoire with the German bow, requiring greater strength. This was a more difficult change and some compromise had to be made. Michelle Zukowsky, soloist on the Weber Clarinet Concertino for the delightful record Concertos in Contrast, highlighting soloists from the LAPO, had to entirely change her style of playing when she took on the Viennese clarinet.


Five years after his appointment to the LAPO, Mehta embarked on his first major worldwide tour. 41 concerts were given over a period of nine weeks and included France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Iran and India. The President of Turkey who attended one of the concerts in Istanbul allegedly fell asleep but awoke during Pictures at an Exhibition. In Athens, the Queen Mother, a devoted Indophile, served up Indian curries for Mehta. The concerts in Tehran were held during Coronation Week which also marked the opening of a newly-built opera house. Those in India marked his first artistic homecoming since having left his birthplace in 1954. Following an overwhelming welcome, the audiences were treated to the first Indian performances of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben and Mahler’s First Symphony, given at the Shanmukhanada Hall in Mumbai (Bombay). In December that year, Mehta and the orchestra were featured on the celebrated Bell Telephone Hour, the Ed Spiegel documentary introducing Mehta as bringing to the stage “the undeniable vigour of rugged youth and a chemistry of commanding virility”. In January the following year, Time magazine put Mehta on its front cover – remarkable for any conductor, let alone one just 31 years old.


In 1970 the influential Ernest Fleischmann (1924–2010) took over as executive director of the LAPO – a position he held for thirty years. A musician turned businessman whose Jewish family had fled Nazi Germany and migrated first to South Africa, then England, and eventually America, he is acknowledging with substantially increasing the orchestra members’ salaries during his tenure as well as adding a summer season at the Hollywood Bowl. (Hits from the Hollywood Bowl went on to become one of the orchestra’s best-selling Decca records.) Together with Mehta, they planned, for the time, unusual and out-of-the-box program concepts.


There was a twelve-hour Beethoven marathon in 1970 for the bicentennial of the composer’s birth. A Star Wars concert, originally intended for an audience of children(!), was held at the Hollywood Bowl in November 1977; the first film from the original trilogy had been released that year and the concert included a suite from John Williams’s music for the film, as well as that from his Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was a kind of son et lumière show with laser beams criss-crossing the Bowl, altering in shape as the intensity of the music altered. A crowd of nearly 18,000 were frenzied in their adulation. Losing no time, the month after Decca made a recording of the two suites which went on to become a chart-topping success. The concert also included excerpts from Holst’s Planets (which the orchestra had recorded six years earlier), and all of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. The latter had been recorded ten years earlier, in May 1968, coincidentally exactly a month after the appearance of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey which, of course, famously included the tone poem’s imposing opening, “Sonnenaufgang” as its theme music. The 1977 concert was billed “Music from Outer Space”. Twenty years later, the Holst, Strauss and Williams works were successfully compiled together in the CD era as part of the company’s ‘Double Decca’ series; it has never left the catalogue since.


There was also a concert where the orchestra alternated performances of Bach, Lalo, Stravinsky and Orff with those by The Who and Santana. The LAPO’s principal timpanist was William Kraft, and from him Mehta commissioned Contextures I, a new multimedia orchestral work, which they recorded in April 1968. Not all such experiments were, however, successful. One, with Frank Zappa – 200 Motels – scored for his band and the LAPO took things over the limit: the players were required to snort, grunt, throw confetti, and the 104-strong orchestra were at one point required to stand up and walk into the audience improvising their own music. Despite Zappa’s protests, Mehta cut the entire second part of the piece and the two never reconciled. “It was the worst piece of music I have ever heard. But I’d given him my word, so we performed it,” Mehta says. Memories are not so short, however, and when in 1978 Mehta left the LAPO to assume music directorship of the New York Philharmonic, Time magazine noted: “In his sixteen-year tenure there, Mehta made a few memorable mistakes, one an embarrassing rock-classical concert”.


Following Mehta’s first recordings of Bruckner, Liszt and Wagner in 1965–66 with the Vienna Philharmonic, a new relationship ensued with the LAPO. They were signed exclusively to Decca for an initial four-year contract. It signalled the first exclusive contract ever signed between an American orchestra and a major European recording company. The news made headlines and in April 1967, before the first recording sessions commenced, the Bell Telephone Hour was there again, with a television special devoted to Mehta, “whose sable locks, honey-coloured aquiline features and voracious energy give him the appeal of a matinee idol and make him a kind of culture hero” (Time).


The recording crew arrived from London. With them were 56 crates weighing more than two-and-a-half tonnes. Culshaw and his engineers Gordon Parry and James Lock announced that the recording sessions would be held in the UCLA’s Royce Hall. A whole new stage platform had to be built, strong enough for the musicians, their instruments and the microphones. All very well, except that the entire set-up had to be dismantled regularly between sessions because the hall had been booked for lectures and for performances by the American Ballet Theater. The sessions themselves were extensive. Starting with Pictures at an Exhibition, they included Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and music by Schönberg and Scriabin – all recorded over five days.


Right through his tenure with the LAPO, Mehta produced a sizeable quantity of material for Decca – the Tchaikovsky symphonies (re-recording the Fourth in 1977), several of the Strauss tone poems, Mahler’s Third and Fifth symphonies and Bruckner’s Fourth and Eighth. There were discs of popular fare, as well as a championing of music of the Second Viennese School – Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht, the Variations, Op. 31 and the First Chamber Symphony. The focus was clearly to showcase the panoramic sound of the orchestra. There are very few concerto recordings in the Mehta/LAPO discography, the one exception being Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto with Alicia de Larrocha, made during the final sessions with the orchestra in March 1978. Otherwise, the handful of other concerto recordings, including Kraft’s Percussion Concerto (1968), all feature soloists from the orchestra. For his recording team he had Decca’s top-drawer producers and engineers. Culshaw and Ray Minshull were his chief producers, and the legendary team of Gordon Parry and James Lock his sound engineers.


To the world at large Mehta has, of course, achieved greater stardom than many of his generation through his association as conductor of the “Three Tenors” concerts, the first of these, with the joint Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Orchestra and Rome Opera Orchestra on 7 July1990, going on to become the biggest selling single classical recording of all time. The second, held on 16 July 1994 at the 56,000 Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, was with the LAPO. It was recorded by the Decca team, Christopher Raeburn returning as Producer, though released by the Warner Music Group.


Jolly master of ceremonies as he is at these events, he retains all the qualities of a serious musician, but continues to maintain that experimentation is key to the survival and growth of classical music:

“This is why I believe that we should allow a lot of innovation or ‘gimmicks’ so that people are enticed to attend concerts and operas. Ceremonious solemnity alone is not enough to win over the younger generation. The valuable musical heritage that we are responsible for merits careful consideration. We simply have to come up with new ways of awakening our interest in classical music.”