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Zubin Mehta: in town and busier than ever

December 9, 2009 | 12:15 pm

Zubin Mehta was 24 when he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the first time in 1960. Two years later, he was named the orchestra’s principal conductor. In 1968, the great Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Eugene Ormandy said: “In spite of his youth, he has very much arrived. I consider him the finest of young conductors.” His future, as they say, lay all before him.

Now Mehta, at 73, finds himself in an uncharacteristically retrospective mood. His autobiography, “The Score of My Life” has been translated recently from the original German printing. Tonight, he’s being honored at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica by the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic for his 40th anniversary as music director. And on Thursday, he begins a weekend-long stint at Walt Disney Concert Hall with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, an orchestra he conducted for 16 years.

“I wanted the Los Angeles Philharmonic to emulate the Vienna Philharmonic,” he said recalling earlier days in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. He was referring especially to that orchestra’s rich, dark tone. “It’s what I tried to build up here in the ‘60s. I think we were quite successful. Do you know that [L.A. Phil principal clarinetist] Michele Zukovsky still plays on a Viennese clarinet?”

Mehta76 Mehta’s upcoming Philharmonic program -- Webern’s Passacaglia, Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (with Yefim Bronfman as soloist) and Beethoven’s “Eroica”-- largely suits his preferred repertoire.

“I endeavor that all orchestras I conduct sound Central European,” he said. “It’s a sort of intimate chamber music-like warmth, which I hope will happen this week in the 'Eroica.' Not necessarily in the Bartok. One learns how to change gears within a concert repertoire.”

Mehta is thrilled that audiences are taking to Gustavo Dudamel, the Philharmonic’s new music director. “I once canceled my Israel Philharmonic stint and said, `Hey, there’s this young kid. Let’s try him.’ He came and made a sensation. He’s been coming ever since.”

Mehta was reluctant to offer Dudamel advice, but did reflect on some lessons learned during his own career.

“I had an orchestra here made up of sages, with principal players I still admire,” he said. “Was I gonna 'teach’ them? No. So there was the humility of a young conductor to keep a steady head, not to believe all the publicity and to be humble vis-à-vis the musicians. I hope today’s generation does the same thing.

"And experience, of course, counts. I first did the 'Eroica' with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1967. My tempi are almost the same today, but I’ve learned a lot since then. My score is open right now -- you can’t stop looking at it. It’s a revolution from the first chord.”

-- Rick Schultz

Related story:

Mr. Mehta's world tour

Top: Mehta, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at Disney Hall in March; Alex Gallardo/Los Angeles Times. Below, in 1976. Credit: Los Angeles Times.