Published: 15:30, June 25, 2024
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The maestro returns
By Chen Nan

Iconic conductor once again treats Chinese audiences to his unequaled talent, Chen Nan reports.

Conductor Zubin Mehta with the Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing on June 21, 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

In 2015, Zubin Mehta and the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing worked together on a production of Giuseppe Verdi's classic opera Aida. Along with the China NCPA Orchestra, China NCPA Chorus, and a lineup of international artists, the conductor had an unforgettable experience.

"It was the best Aida that I ever did," says Mehta, who conducted Verdi's opera many times in his long career, including a version he did with the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City in 1965.

In 2023, unfortunately, the conductor failed to join Aida at the NCPA due to ill health.

In a phone call with the NCPA, he said: "When I'm in good condition next year, I will definitely return to the NCPA no matter how busy my schedule is then."

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On Friday, the 88-year-old conductor appeared at the NCPA, entering the room in a wheelchair and walking to a nearby chair.

"I rarely got sick. Last year, my doctor told me that if I traveled, I would die on the airplane. I had to cancel my trip to the NCPA. I can assure you that I am fully recovered now. So I am here," he says. "I am only 88."

From Friday to Sunday, Mehta and the Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino performed at the NCPA, playing pieces including Chopin's Piano Concerto No 2 in F Minor, Op 21, Beethoven's Symphony No 7 in A Major, Op 92 and Dvorak's Symphony No 7 in D Minor, Op 70. Before Beijing, they also performed two concerts in Tianjin on Wednesday and Thursday.

Founded in 1928, the Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino premiered many composers' music pieces, such as Richard Strauss and Pietro Mascagni. Since the 1950s, the orchestra has made numerous recordings, which received major awards including a Grammy in 1990.

The orchestra's principal conductor from 1985 to 2017, Mehta was later appointed honorary conductor for life. Though moving with difficulty and conducting while seated, he showed great vitality onstage.

"I am a conductor who is faithful to the composers. I have worked with the orchestra for about 35 years. I always look forward to our rehearsals and concerts. My energy comes from what I love," the conductor says. He came to the interview after over three hours of rehearsal that day. "That's the strength and power of music. The public absorbs the music as we perform it onstage. They give us long standing ovations."

The conductor is also keen on working with young musicians. During his recent tour in China, Mehta performed with pianist Vanessa Benelli Mosell and violinist Amira Abouzahra. He says that since the musicians of the orchestra work with many conductors and soloists, they are flexible, and he respects their talents and personalities.

Before the concert opened on Friday, Mehta's presence was felt from the moment the stage doors opened. The crowd began cheering before the conductor could even be seen. By the end of the concert, the conductor returned to the stage and performed Brahms' Hungarian Dance No 5 during the encore session. The audience gave a long ovation as an expression of admiration for the conductor.

"I love the Chinese audience and we have a bond," the conductor says.

Over the past 17 years, he has performed at the NCPA many times since the iconic venue opened in 2007. Besides the NCPA's production of Aida, Mehta has also performed at the NCPA with symphony orchestras, such as the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

"I have many unforgettable experience in China," says Mehta, mentioning the New Year concert with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 2008 that he performed at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and Puccini's Turandot that he did with famous film director Zhang Yimou at the Forbidden City in 1998.

"I remember with the greatest pleasure that we performed nine concerts with each one having audiences of about 4,000. The concerts were unique experiences that I will never forget," he says.

Mehta during a rehearsal at the NCPA in Beijing on June 21, 2024. (JIANG DONG / CHINA DAILY)

Mehta also notes that he loves coming to China not only as a musician but also as a tourist. Along with his wife, he saw pandas in Chengdu, Sichuan province, and the mural paintings of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu province.

"I grew up in India and my home was full of Chinese elements, such as Chinese silk and antiques," the conductor says.

"One of my father's elder brothers worked in Shanghai during the 1930s. My grandmother once visited him in Shanghai and told us everything about the trip after she returned to India. Many years later, when my cousin (son of the uncle) visited us in Mumbai, he only spoke the Shanghai dialect," Mehta says.

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Mehta was born into a musical family. His father was an accomplished violinist and founder of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. He left India to study music in Vienna at the age of 18. Throughout the 1960s and '70s, he conducted the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic. In the 1980s, he served as music director for the New York Philharmonic and was named music director for life of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

In 1990, set against the imposing backdrop of Rome's Baths of Caracalla in Italy, superstar tenors Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti were joined by more than 200 orchestra musicians. Under the baton of Mehta, they performed a spectacular event that made history and marked a permanent shift in the way classical music was consumed by the masses.

In 1990, 1995, 1998, 2007 and 2015, Mehta conducted the beloved annual concert featuring the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein.

When asked about what he loves besides music, the conductor says soccer, a sport that he has enjoyed since he was a child.

He mentions that the recent concerts in Beijing and Tianjin were arranged at the last minute and he is already planning to return to visit more Chinese cities in 2025 with the Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.

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