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Zubin Mehta's Western stream

Wagnerian wonders


Iam in the Weiner Musikverein, the magnificent concert hall in Vienna, Austria. There's hardly anyone else around. That's not surprising because it's just after nine in the morning, and I have come in from the five degree celsius cold outside to watch a rehearsal.

At 9. 30, the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic come in, in ones and twos, lugging in their instruments. Within minutes, every seat on the stage is taken and within minutes the auditorium is a cacophony of the most discordant sounds as each player begins to practice furiously.

There's history within these walls. After all, this is where Brahms, Schubert and Schumann lived their music. This is where Haydn and Bruckner and even Mozart and Beethoven made appearances. And this is where the very nature of music changed: earlier, it was only the nobility which could attend concerts because of the prohibitive entrance fees. But when a society called the Friends of Music was set up here, its first decision was to make admission prices more affordable, thus making music accessible to people outside the tight circle of the aristocracy.

History was also made here when Gustav Mahler as conductor took the then unheard of step of getting doors to the hall closed before starting a performance;until then, the audience had walked in and walked out as it pleased! Mahler also asked for the auditorium lights to be switched off during a performance, something which upset the aristocracy terribly: after all, they came to a concert to see and be seen.

Caught up in these ruminations, I suddenly notice an absence. It's the absence of sound: the orchestra's cacophony has suddenly been stilled. I look to the stage. Everyone is looking up at the man in casual pullover and slacks who has just walked in. Greetings are exchanged as he sits on a high stool. Zubin Mehta raises his baton as a signal to start rehearsals, and says in German, 'Shall we begin?'

Between the dream of the young man who wanted to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in the Wiener Musikverein fifty years ago and the handsomely ageing man doing exactly that now (as he has done many times earlier), is mapped out the glittering career of Zubin Mehta. Consider this: Zubin Mehta was a guest conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic when he was just 23. A year later he was made Music Director of the Montreal Symphony;then at 26, he was appointed Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the youngest ever head of a major orchestra.

These staggering achievements are even more so when you consider that there is virtually no tradition of Western classical music in India. To put in perspective the scale of Zubin Mehta's achievements, we also have to remind ourselves of the fundamental differences between the musical traditions of the East and the West. In the Western tradition, a large group of individuals come together to form a cohesive whole: individual brilliance submerges itself in collective excellence. Then there is the music itself: in the Western stream, every piece of the music is written down, with the composer defining the size of the orchestra, the tempo of movements, even sometimes the emphasis within a section of the piece. The conductor and the orchestra work within this superstructure, involving the intense discipline of team work.

Contrast that to the Indian tradition: a raga is for morning or evening. In other words, the music echoes the mood and the environment. The Indian tradition also lays complete emphasis on individuality. There is no concept of ensemble, of different instruments playing together: instead there's the soloist alone, with a cast of supporting players. Then there is the huge importance given to improvisation, virtually unknown in the West. As if to emphasize this, there is no concept of a written score for Indian music (how do you write down an improvisation?) As if that weren't enough, the idea of harmony is completely unknown in Indian music.

These are vast, and fundamental, differences, which is why it is not surprising that India has not produced too many exponents of Western classical music. If we did produce one, it was reasonable to expect, given Indian music's emphasis on the individual, that the exponent would be a soloist. But a conductor, the man with the most complex job of all?

Through all his successes, Zubin Mehta has stayed intensely patriotic, having to this day kept his Indian passport in spite of all the inconveniences;whenever he travels, he seeks out Indian food and carries a bottle of chillies with him. He is often in India on holidays, but he goes beyond that: he uses his contacts and his fame and his charm to get major orchestras of the world to perform in India, particularly in Mumbai. Lately these trips have helped raise money for the organisation set up in his father's name, the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation in Mumbai, whose aim is to train young Indian musicians.

From the vast repertoire of music that Zubin Mehta has conducted, critics agree that his style, generally described as flamboyant, suits large romantic compositions best. That would include the Viennese School (Schoenberg, Webern, Berg) and the great orchestral compositions of Berlioz and Tchaikovsky. His special gift is for creating musical structures without wavering from the music line, of building note by note, phrase by phrase towards a shattering climax, so that the audience is carried up and up in a whirligig of sound. Then in the quieter moments, say like the ethereal penultimate movement of Mahler's Fifth, Mehta's ability to intuitively gauge the relative emphases on component notes brings about a lyrical contrast to what's gone before so that elements one may have not noticed earlier are suddenly brought to pulsating life. Given these skills of creating massive chromatic sounds juxtaposed with silvery ruminative passages, it's no surprise that Zubin Mehta has been regarded by many as the true torch bearer of the Wagnerian tradition.

Zubin Mehta's list of awards and accolades is long, and gets longer every year. He is revered all over the musical world, has conducted every great orchestra, been given the citizenship of many cities and countries. But his assessment of himself is characteristically far more modest: "There is so much music I have not performed. There is so much I have to learn. In the end, I will never know enough. "

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