When Zubin Mehta's string theory struck a wrong chord with New York

[Book extract] The Indian conductor's remarks in 1967 kept him from the Philharmonic's podium for the next six years.

 |  5-minute read |   06-05-2016
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On Zubin's return from Bombay in 1967, speculation was rife that he was likely to succeed Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic. By 1967, Zubin was also beginning to become familiar to New York audiences.

He had conducted the Philadelphia and the American Symphony orchestras in Carnegie Hall and had become one of the regulars at the Metropolitan Opera. But he had not conducted the New York Philharmonic since the Lewisohn Stadium concerts in 1960.

To rectify this, the Philharmonic invited the rising star to conduct for two weeks during the 1968-69 season, Zubin's sabbatical year. Zubin accepted the invitation, with a proviso: he told Moseley (New York Philharmonic's president) that he wouldn't do it if it meant he was a candidate for permanent conductor.

Despite Zubin's protestations of non-candidacy, Schonberg's article in the New York Times headlined "After Leonard Bernstein, Who?" on December 10, 1967 chose to discount his statements and proceeded to analyse his qualifications for the job. The next day, Los Angeles was abuzz with rumours about Zubin's move to New York.


Zubin attempted to scotch the rumours at a reception in his honour that evening, which was attended by numerous members of the press. Zubin dismissed the New York job and the availability of the Boston and Chicago conductorships, saying they were of no interest to him.

He said he delighted in the freedom he enjoyed in his Los Angeles post to pursue his other interests, most notably the conducting of opera. When asked about his chances of getting the job in New York, he bluntly said that he didn't want it and was happy in Los Angeles. For further emphasis, he added: "My orchestra is better than the New York Philharmonic. We play better than they do. Artistically, it would not be a step up for me."

"I think all of this is wishful thinking," said Behrendt, a member of the executive committee and later president of the Los Angeles board. "The people in the East are thinking about how they're going to get him; it never crosses my mind that we'll lose him."

Behrendt said she and the other board members did not consider the possibility of Zubin leaving for another orchestra because "to him the challenge is right here". "He can do anything he wants; he has all kinds of recording possibilities. If he went to Philadelphia, he'd find that they had already recorded everything worth doing."

(The Los Angeles orchestra had a four records-a-year contract with London and was at the time the only American orchestra recorded by the British company.)

No harm had been done till the New York Times reporter left the party to file his story.

5da18c32a832a7e3b642_050616112457.jpg Zubin Mehta: A Musical Journey; Penguin; Rs 899. 

But the Newsweek correspondent stayed longer and caught the remark that was to cause Zubin much heartache and also seriously impact his career. Zubin was reported as having said: "An American should lead the Philharmonic. And he should be able to deal with both the orchestra - they step over conductors - and with New York."

Perhaps the most brutal utterance was, "A lot of us think, why not send our worst enemy to the New York Philharmonic and finish him off once and for all." This tactless remark soon became the skeleton that rattled in Zubin's cupboard whenever the New York Philharmonic was discussed.

Zubin had bad-mouthed the city of New York as well. "I can't wait to get out of this town. It's claustrophobic. I absolutely loathe it." Zubin was also not too thrilled about the audience in New York even though he did not voice it publicly then. "I never thought too much of the New York audience whose applause is only enough for a conductor to return twice to take a bow."

Zubin denied having spoken to Newsweek, saying that they hadn't got that remark from him. 'They didn't get it from me. I should have written them a note at the time. I can understand why the musicians would be upset." He admitted, however, that he had made remarks similar to those quoted in the magazine to Moseley of the Philharmonic and to others. "I told Mr Moseley, who the hell wants the job? It's never been offered to me anyway."


Zubin's statements snowballed into a controversy, which only ended with his meeting with the New York Philharmonic musicians.

Zubin found himself at the headquarters of Local 802, the New York branch of the American Federation of Musicians, making a full-dress apology. Zubin was called by the executive board of the New York musicians' union to explain the statements he had made about them. "They call him Zubi Baby," remarked Max Arons, president of Local 802, American Federation of Musicians, "but we will talk to him like an adult, no kid stuff."

zubin_mehta__new_yor_050616112812.jpg Zubin's remarks in 1967 kept him from the podium of the New York Philharmonic for the next six years. 

Arons said he wanted to check whether Zubin had indeed said what he was reported to have said in Newsweek, things like he wouldn't send his worst enemy to conduct the New York Philharmonic, and that the orchestra walks all over conductors.

Zubin's remarks in 1967 kept him from the podium of the New York Philharmonic for the next six years. While this may seem like a long penance for a small transgression, in fact, resentment smouldered long at the Philharmonic because Zubin had touched a raw nerve.

The players knew there was some truth to what he had said. While they discounted Zubin's claims about the superiority of the Los Angeles Philharmonic as the comment of a conductor loyal to his own orchestra, what rankled was the assertion that there was something amiss in the way the New York orchestra treated its conductors.

(Reprinted from publisher's permission. Courtesy of Mail Today.)


Bakhtiar K Dadabhoy Bakhtiar K Dadabhoy

The writer is the author of 'Zubin Mehta: A Musical Journey'.

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