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Zubin Mehta has joined the ranks of Kurt Masur and Kent Nagano in receiving the coveted Furtwängler Prize at Bonn's prestigious Beethovenfest.
Mehta has been a controversial figure in Israel
Zubin Mehta is considered one of the world's leading musicians. Originally from Mumbai, India, the conductor has led orchestras and opera houses around the world since the 1960s - from Tel Aviv to Munich to Los Angeles. Mehta has a particular connection with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which has made him "conductor for life."
But despite all his success, Mehta has never lost track of his commitment to social issues. He is involved in music education for children in India and Israel and gives benefit concerts - most recently for victims of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. Mehta has thus received the Furtwängler Prize "due to dedication both to music and social issues," said Beethovenfest director Ilona Schmiel.
On Sunday, Deutsche Welle spoke with the conductor about his choice of home in Israel, his affinity to German composer Wilhelm Furtwängler and recent events in London, where pro-Palestinian demonstrations disrupted his concert.
Deutsche Welle: Today is September 11 - a day which one hopes will remain peaceful and free of catastrophe.
Zubin Mehta: I am not a fatalist. I think positively. Nothing will happen. Thousands of concerts will take place around the world. Peace will reign during this time, and all that peace counts a great deal. One must never underestimate the power of music.
You are receiving the Furtwängler prize today.
That is a huge honor. I don't think it's necessary to give me a special award, however. I am a musician, I make music with my favorite orchestra, and that's enough for me. Each concert is an award and a gift to me. That's enough.
Conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1948
What does Furtwängler mean to you as an artist?
I grew up with Furtwängler and his albums in India. My father - who was a violinist and founded the orchestra in Mumbai - rented a hall in 1953 and invited a group of people to get together. No one knew why. And then we listened to a recording of "Tristan und Isolde," conducted by Furtwängler. We had no idea what "Tristan und Isolde" was; we did not have the score, nor the text. But we listened and were swept away - by the music alone, since we couldn't understand the rest. And we did not understand, but felt the Wagner Revolution.
You have chosen Israel as your home. There, whole generations have grown up knowing Wagner only from listening to recordings…
That's not quite correct. Israeli radio - and that is public radio - has always played Wagner. Wagner is also taught at music conservatories. That all began when I dared to perform Wagner in 1981 - as an encore after a concert. But it wasn't a success back then. I played it through - the orchestra went along with me, but the following day, all the opponents came at me in full force.
Another Israeli orchestra recently played Wagner in Bayreuth. But the musicians hadn't even rehearsed the music on Israeli territory - the rehearsals took place in Bayreuth.
I don't agree with that. I told the conductor, my friend Roberto Paternostro: "If you really want to play Wagner now at long last, which I wholeheartedly support, then play him in Israel. Don't do it secretly abroad." That seems sanctimonious to me.
You have called the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra your "favorite orchestra." You have been working with it for an unbelievable 50 years - first as a musician, through to being named "principal conductor for life." How has such huge love developed?
I'm a kind of father figure, both musically and outside of music. Also because I have meanwhile selected all of the musicians (democratically, of course, with the orchestra council). Speaking egotistically: the orchestra carries my signature, whether one loves that or not.
Mehta calls most of the world 'home'
You were born in Mumbai, trained in Vienna, you live at times in Los Angeles and Florence, and you say you've been adopted by Israel. Where is your true home?
Somehow, everywhere. But no, India is home, no doubt about it. When I land in Mumbai, I feel like I'm coming home. But I also feel at home in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, in the United States in general, where I have played music for the past 30 years and have learned a lot.
Florence also adopted me over 25 years ago, and now I have a festival in Valencia each summer. So it's a triangle between Los Angeles, Israel and Florence.
You have called the Israel Philharmonic a "brave orchestra." And the orchestra's courage is repeatedly put to the test, such as recently at the Proms in London, where your concert was disrupted by demonstrating pro-Palestinian groups and the broadcast at the BBC had to be interrupted.
Yes, that was pretty shocking. But we remained dignified and silent on stage. We played the entire first piece - Anton Webern's "Passacaglia," which is hard to concentrate on, but we did not relent. The piece lasts 10 to 12 minutes. But when the first group had been thrown out, the next groups were right there and they disrupted things four times after that! They had bought all the tickets and, from their point of view, had organized it all very well. But the audience in Royal Albert Hall - and that's 6,000 people! - they yelled back. Even if I personally feel a Palestine should exist: that's not the way to demand it. It's self-defeating and counter-productive.
You visited Israel in 1961 and conducted the orchestra. When you look back over the years - a half century, one must stress - and compare things, are you now more hopeful for a peaceful solution than back then, or less so?
Back then, Israel was in a stronger position both psychologically and morally around the world. Also after the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War - during these wars, Israel was attacked from all sides! A kind of "status quo" mentality now reigns in Israel these days; each side - the Palestinian and the Israeli - waits for the other to give in first. That's a "macho" stance that has a lot to do with vanity. People have to just sit down and really talk, without placing demands. Just sit down at the table and talk until a solution is found.
Do you think women could be better negotiators in that regard?
Why not? You have a wonderful woman here leading the nation in Germany. We had Ms. Gandhi in India. That's not a bad idea!
Furtwängler has inspired generations of conductors
You were general music director of the Bavarian State Opera for eight years, from 1998 to 2006. You left your post to have more spare time, you said. Do you have more leisure time now?
Ask my wife that question! No, I don't. But I spent eight very happy years at the Bavarian State Opera, and the year after next, a dream will come true for me: I will go to Munich for three weeks and conduct all the orchestras there - the Bavarian State Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. I'm really looking forward to it because I love the city.
Interview: Anastassia Boutsko / als
Editor: Rick Fulker