Former president and executive director of the New York Philharmonic, Zarin Mehta, grew up in 1940’s Bombay before it became the booming city of Mumbai. In Mehta’s memory, Bombay was more like a colonial fishing village.
Mehta talks with Alec about his father, who founded the Bombay Symphony Orchestra, his brother Zubin, and the realities of running a major arts organization in New York, saying that, “in the United States one does not look to the state for support of the arts.” Alec also speaks with Mehta's wife, Carmen, and she offers her own insights into his success.
Music excerpts included in Here’s the Thing’s conversation with Zarin Mehta:
Mozart: Symphony No. 41, "Jupiter" (Lorin Maazel/NYP from 2006 DG Download #1)
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe, Part 3 - 3eme tableau - Teil 3, Orchestre symphonique du Montreal / Choeur de l'Orchestre symphonique de Montreal; Charles Dutoit, (Decca Record Company, Ltd / London (Polygram Classics)
Beethoven: Overture to Egmont from Alan Gilbert: The Inaugural Season iTunes Pass, release 5 (Alan Gilbert/NYP)
Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, Prelude & Fugue #1 In C, BWV 846.R; Andras Schiff, Piano; Decca Record Company, Ltd / London (Polygram Classics)
Schubert: Songs for Mezzo-Soprano & Orchestra (Anne-Sophie von Otter, mezzo/NYP/Alan Gilbert from 2011-12 iTunes Pass, release 4
Messiaen: Coleurs de la cite celeste (Colors of the celestial city) (Emmanuel Ax, piano/NYP/Alan Gilbert from 2010-12 iTunes Pass, release
Brahms: A German Requiem (Masur/NYP as recorded following the events of 9/11, Heidi Grant Murphy, soloist) (from NYP broadcast archives, 2001 "special" and NYP 11-50)
Strauss: Tod und Verklarung (Death and Transfiguration) from 2005; Lorin Maazel, conductor (from NYP broadcast archives, 06-03)
Thanks to the New York Philharmonic for generous use of archival material.
Alec Baldwin: I’m Alec Baldwin and this is Here’s The Thing from WNYC Radio. For the past 12 years Zarin Mehta has run what is arguably the finest orchestra in the country, the New York Philharmonic. Zarin retired as president and executive director of the Philharmonic at the end of this past season.
He leaves behind Alan Gilbert, the orchestra’s music director, a position that Zarin’s older brother Zubin held for 13 years. Zarin Mehta is famous for his intellect, his passion for the music, and his insights and ideas about how to sustain a world class orchestra. It’s hard to imagine someone better suited for that job. How would you describe your job?
Zarin Mehta: Getting paid for something I love to do. How’s that?
Alec Baldwin: I get that impression.
Zarin Mehta: You know, somebody said to me, 'You’re retired. Aren’t you glad you won’t have to do union negotiations anymore?' I said, 'I love doing them.'
Alec Baldwin: Do you?
Zarin Mehta: Yeah. It’s a game. It’s fun.
Alec Baldwin: Zarin’s love for New York City is contagious. He experiences more of his adopted city in a weekend than most natives do in a lifetime.
Zarin Mehta: Saturday I went to the opera. Saturday night we had a concert. Sunday afternoon I went to another concert because one of the people who comes to conductors was conducting his orchestra and it was just very relaxing to go and do all those things. You know, I don’t understand colleagues of mine who go maybe once a week to the concert. I don’t understand it.
Alec Baldwin: Are there some?
Zarin Mehta: I assume you go to the movies a lot.
Alec Baldwin: I watch movies a lot. I don’t necessarily go to a theater.
Zarin Mehta: Well, that’s fine. It’s the same thing. Yeah. I went to the movies yesterday morning which is something I’ve never done.
Alec Baldwin: I think I go to the symphony more than you go to the movies.
Zarin Mehta: No. I used to go to the movies two or three times a week. You know sometimes my wife and I go on a Saturday afternoon then go to the concert afterwards. We love going to the movies and to the theater. We’re out all the time.
Alec Baldwin: He’s talking about his wife of 46 years, Carmen Mehta, a former opera singer who is as invested in classical music and the arts as is Zarin.
Carmen Mehta: I’ve been teaching singing for 54 years. For any singing teacher that’s out there, it does take about 54 years to figure out how exactly to do it – how to turn each new voice into its best, how to attack that instrument or encourage that instrument, because everyone is so different. But the main thing is to attack it from music instead of only from the voice.
Alec Baldwin: So to an extent, when you are instructing and when you are coaching or whatever word you want to use –
Carmen Mehta: I would say I teach.
Alec Baldwin: You teach singing, and I’m obsessed with singing, and I joke about it, because if I could sing, I’d have a completely different life. In my heart, I think I have the heart of a singer, but I have the vocal chords of a crossing guard or something. I mean I’m-
Carmen Mehta: No, you don’t. Excuse me. May I interrupt you?
Alec Baldwin: Of course.
Carmen Mehta: You have the vocal chords of an actor.
Alec Baldwin: Carmen Mehta is precise and doesn’t hold back on her opinions. And over the last few years, she and Zarin have welcomed me to their classical music world. I’ve been listening to classical music since my twenties, when I discovered it while driving around Los Angeles looking for work. Through meeting Zarin I’ve been able to live out my dream of being part of an orchestra, not as a musician, but by hosting the Philharmonic’s radio broadcast on WQXR, and by serving on the Philharmonic’s board of directors.
Zarin, an accountant by trade, grew up in 1940’s Bombay before it became the booming city of Mumbai. Back then, or at least in Zarin Mehta’s memory, it was more like a a colonial fishing village.
Zarin Mehta: For me it was a lovely upbringing. We bicycled to school for 45 minutes to get to our school. We played cricket every weekend in many fields that actually still exist.
Alec Baldwin: And your father was a musician?
Zarin Mehta: My father was a musician so we grew up in a completely absorbing musical environment.
Alec Baldwin: Was he a professional musician?
Zarin Mehta: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: He was a violinist?
Zarin Mehta: Yeah. He was violinist and a conductor and he started the Bombay Symphony. He started the Bombay String Quartet.
Alec Baldwin: Was his father a classically trained musician?
Zarin Mehta: No. No.
Alec Baldwin: How did he come to it?
Zarin Mehta: The thing – but this is one of the craziest things, Alec. I mean, you think back to when he started studying the violin. He was born in 1908. In the ‘20s there were no recordings. There was no radio. How did this man –
Alec Baldwin: Find it.
Zarin Mehta: – get this bug to study western classical music in India? And we still don’t know – and he doesn’t know when we asked him. He actually went to school, did a commerce degree, and started working for the income tax department.
Alec Baldwin: Who trained him on the violin?
Zarin Mehta: An Italian musician who’d ended up in Bombay by ship from Genoa, and he gave private lessons and my father studied with him.
Alec Baldwin: What year did he found the symphony in Bombay?
Zarin Mehta: In ’39.
Alec Baldwin: And there had been none prior to that?
Zarin Mehta: No, and my brother and I grew up listening to sectional rehearsals of the Bombay symphony in our living room, chamber music concerts. I know chamber music intimately only because we listened to it over and over and over again.
Alec Baldwin: Your brother has said – I wanna read this quote – 'There was little room for you to practice as a kid between him and your father.' Did you – had you wanted to play?
Zarin Mehta: No. I really – never. I thought that was enough to listen to it and I didn’t feel any urge to want to learn anything.
Alec Baldwin: You didn’t?
Zarin Mehta: No, and I was perfectly happy doing that and going to school and listening to music, putting on records all the time. Those old 78s you have to get up every four minutes to flip the record or change it, and that was wonderful.
Alec Baldwin: Your brother – when did he know that he wanted to go in that direction? When he was very young?
Zarin Mehta: I think he probably knew all the time, ‘cause I think the calling was there and he really wanted to be a conductor. Then he left India to study composition in Vienna with an eye to go into the conducting school, and the year after he was in Vienna he got into conducting school and started having –
Alec Baldwin: How old was he?
Zarin Mehta: He was 18 at the time, and my father continued working that way and then he left India, came to England, worked in an orchestra – the Halle Orchestra – a great orchestra with Sir John Barbirolli, who was a music director from New York in the ‘40s. Then he came to Philadelphia and slowly both Zubin and I gravitated to the United States, and when I finished my accounting qualification in London and came to New York to get a job, I was told that I would be drafted and sent back to England as a GI. So that’s when I gravitated up to Canada in 1962. I was a bachelor and thought, “This is a nice place,” and that’s how my life started in North America.
Alec Baldwin: Your father lived until when?
Zarin Mehta: He died in 2002.
Alec Baldwin: No.
Zarin Mehta: Yeah. He was 94.
Alec Baldwin: He was 94? So obviously he had lived to see both of you establish your career.
Zarin Mehta: Oh, absolutely. Oh, gosh. Yes.
Alec Baldwin: Was he memorized by that?
Zarin Mehta: Yeah. He was – especially with my brother because he lived through him vicariously.
Alec Baldwin: Right. Now having grown up around musicians and your father, but I guess more notably your brother who being a conductor in the modern age, those guys certainly have a presence, shall we say. Did that help you with the work you were doing and dealing with orchestras and soloists and?
Zarin Mehta: I suppose the way it helped - When I was working as an accountant in Montreal and I was on the board of the Montreal Symphony there like you are on the Board of the New York Philharmonic. Of course when musicians came to perform, to conduct I got to know them and they knew Zubin. So we kind of became friends and we’d see each other. We could communicate and –
Alec Baldwin: It’s a small world.
Zarin Mehta: Yeah. It’s a small world. So I got to know a lot of people that way. So of course that helped me when I did decide to go into this profession of running an orchestra full time in 1981. I knew a lot of people.
Alec Baldwin: But you went to Canada in ‘62.
Zarin Mehta: ’62. So I worked as an accountant. I was on the board of the symphony –
Alec Baldwin: You were on the board of the symphony.
Zarin Mehta: – and so from that it became – my job with the symphony was like all other board members – governance and raising money. And then when we needed an executive director and couldn’t find anybody a few colleagues of mine and I decided that maybe I should do it, take a leave of absence, and train somebody to run the orchestra, and in the end I got the bug and I said, 'I like this.'
Alec Baldwin: Zarin remained at the helm of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra for nine years. Charles Dutoit was music director. Carmen Mehta remembers their collaboration.
Carmen Mehta: They made an exceptional team.
Alec Baldwin: What do you attribute that to, that period there in Montreal?
Carmen Mehta: Well, first of all, everything was working in the right way. The mayor that was then in Montreal was very supportive. Charlie was at the height of his career and he brought to Montreal a very strong discipline to that orchestra. Charlie, as we call him, has a great ear, and a great refined ear – that sort of balance of color and in tune playing – and he created for that orchestra a way of making sure that everything was harmonious. And at the same time, the money, the business, was in a good place, so they could do many things, and recording was a great part of that. And they worked together to bring music to the parks, music to the schools.
Alec Baldwin: And what about the orchestra itself? These people who are in these administrative positions, the music directors themselves, they’re handling this body of all these individuals. Not all orchestras are bodies of people who are easy to handle. I guess it’s safe to say that under Dutoit and Zarin, you had a happy group of people. They were happy.
Carmen Mehta: We had a happy group of people because I think it’s always been Zarin’s feeling and his devotion to the fact that the musicians have all studied for many years. And then they join a group of people and they have to become underneath the baton of whoever the conductor is. That means that you have to make sure that your musicians are happy. Make sure that everything that goes on in their lives – from money, to travelling experiences, etc., from their unions, all of that – is working well. And your respect for them, your respect for the musicians. And Charlie’s expertise, and he was so adamant that they make a great sound.
Alec Baldwin: What was the musical world, the classical music world, like back then as compared to now?
Zarin Mehta: I think it wasn’t that different. People always think back and say 'the good old days.' I think more people go to concerts today than they did in those days.
Alec Baldwin: As the result of what?
Zarin Mehta: I think the – in the last ten years I will say the Internet has helped enormously.
Alec Baldwin: Well, I was gonna say so technology has helped.
Zarin Mehta: Absolutely. Instead of saying it’s the reverse I think it’s always helped.
Alec Baldwin: It’s expanded the audience.
Zarin Mehta: Yeah. You know, it’s like in sports when they started televising all these baseball games and hockey games and basketball games. It brought more people to the stadiums because they got used to see what was going on.
Alec Baldwin: Sure. It’s so competitive here in New York for that ticket-holder’s dollar. How do you think the city has behaved and the state has behaved in terms of supporting the arts? Have they been a good partner for you?
Zarin Mehta: Look, in the United States one does not look to the state for support of the arts.
Alec Baldwin: As compared to?
Zarin Mehta: Well, as compare to Europe.
Alec Baldwin: And where in Europe are they most generous?
Zarin Mehta: Every opera house and orchestra in Europe – I’m not talking England – proper Europe – is supported entirely – entirely – by the state. So La Scala or Munich or Berlin.
Alec Baldwin: What do you think the budget of the Berlin Philharmonic is? Similar to yours?
Zarin Mehta: Probably not as high. The pay rates are different and they don’t have to be anything separate for health care and pension, which is such a huge cost to all of us in every business, so yeah. The budgets will be different, but it’s all covered by the Senate in Berlin. A new concert hall complex is being built in Paris.
It’s being paid for by the city of Paris and the federal government, and it’s gonna be huge. I went to see it when I was there a couple months ago. I think it’s going to be three or four hundred million Euros, which for European terms is a huge amount of money and it’s gonna be very beautiful. Jean Nouvel is designing it and it’ll open in 2014. They’ve invited us to go and play there in ‘15.
Alec Baldwin: What’s something you think the city could do – let’s confine ourselves to this institution – what could they have done that you had expected that they would do? What’s something you’d like to see them do?
Zarin Mehta: Let’s go back to the basic thing, not just here, but everywhere, that I would have liked more support for the arts generally from the leaders of our community and that starts with the presidents to the senators to the governors. They do not go to the opera. They do not go to concerts.
When we played in Berlin last year Angela Merkel bought her own tickets and came to hear our concert and she came in the intermission to see Alan and Tom Hampson, who was the –
Alec Baldwin: The soloist.
Zarin Mehta: – soloist and I think that shows the people of that city – the country – the importance of the arts. We don’t have that anywhere. I think it’ll be a great boom for the city of New York if there was some home not just for the orchestra, but the orchestra might do in a three or four month period 25 concerts. You would – all those other dates that you could have jazz and pop and, you know. So why isn’t the city behind the whole idea of doing something, of leading the charge to have a performance base in the city of New York.
That’s what I mean is lacking from the elected officials. So the summer home is something that we need to do. We need to do redo this Avery Fisher hall. People keep saying it’s for acoustical reasons and I keep saying, “No. It’s 50 years old. It needs redoing.”
Alec Baldwin: You don’t believe that Avery Fisher is as compromised acoustically as some people may think?
Zarin Mehta: Not at all. Listen, we play concerts on tour all over the world. I’m not gonna give you numbers because I haven’t worked it out, but I can tell you that there’s maybe half a dozen halls that I think are better than Avery Fisher. Most of the halls that we play are really not that great.
Alec Baldwin: Right. What is it in your mind – ‘cause people struggle with this question. Acoustics for symphonic music is something that you assume it’s important because people never shut up about it. Is it a science? Is it a team of technicians coming in? Or is it luck?
Zarin Mehta: Look, I think the problem with Avery Fisher Hall is Carnegie Hall is eight blocks south of us, ok.
Alec Baldwin: [laughs]
Zarin Mehta: The press keep referring to it as 'acoustically challenged.' If I can show you the reviews of this hall in 1976 when it reopened from The New York Times and all the newspapers ‘cause there was more than one newspaper in those days.
Alec Baldwin: It closed for what period of time?
Zarin Mehta: It closed for about a year and a half.
Alec Baldwin: For what?
Zarin Mehta: For renovation and really –
Alec Baldwin: Just refurbished?
Zarin Mehta: No. At that time it was a real acoustical redo from the time it opened.
Alec Baldwin: And did people largely believe that it had addressed some of the problems?
Zarin Mehta: Oh, they thought this was the greatest hall in the world.
Alec Baldwin: What do you think, for example, about what is considered a more modern hall, new construction in LA? How do you think the Disney Hall sounds?
Zarin Mehta: I think it looks beautiful. I don’t think it sounds as good as it looks, but it’s a perfectly acceptable hall.
Alec Baldwin: Right. What’s one that’s been built recently that you think that they got it right acoustically if you can name one?
Zarin Mehta: In the – I would say in the last 20, 25 years I like the hall in Frankfurt. There’s a couple of halls in Japan that are wonderful.
Alec Baldwin: The Kimmel in Philadelphia?
Zarin Mehta: The Kimmel is not that great. It’s okay. We just played there. It’s improved also because they have all kinds of adjustable things. That’s about it that I can think of. I’m told the new hall in St. Petersburg is wonderful.
Alec Baldwin: And in London when was the last time they renovated that hall?
Zarin Mehta: They did the Festival Hall about five or six years ago.
Alec Baldwin: How much did they spend?
Zarin Mehta: It’s not a major improvement. They spent, I’m told 150 million pounds, something like that.
Alec Baldwin: My God. My God.
Zarin Mehta: Yeah. None of these things are cheap, and then you have to be out of the hall for a long time.
Alec Baldwin: Sure.
Zarin Mehta: That’s one of the problems we’ll have and my successor will have –
Alec Baldwin: Where will they go?
Zarin Mehta: – is where will they go? And we have certain ideas of how to spread the orchestra, play in different halls. There’s ways to travel around the boroughs and play.
Alec Baldwin: Yes.
Alec Baldwin: We’ll be back in a minute with more of my conversation with Zarin Mehta, whose wife Carmen has some thoughts on why his tenure at the New York Philharmonic was so successful.
Carmen Mehta: I think his idea for the orchestra has never really been a vehicle for himself, and I think people see that. If you work with him closely, you’ll see that. Also, he’s an Indian, so he’s good at business, he’s good at numbers. He is an accountant, after all. He has a great memory. So he’s a type that gets respect for not having to check all the time what last year’s season was. He has it in his brain. When he makes a season up and you ask him, he doesn’t have to check anywhere, it’s in his head. He has a good background, not as a musician himself, but with his family, and he’s always been interested in music and as a young student in England went all the time to plays and so on. So he has integrity. He has integrity.
Alec Baldwin: He’s trustworthy.
Carmen Mehta: Absolutely.
Alec Baldwin: He’s trustworthy. Just when you meet him, when you spend five minutes with him, by the time you’re done you say, 'This guy’s a gentleman and he’s trustworthy.'
Carmen Mehta: But he also has some kind of presence. If you use that correctly, I think you have to command respect.
Alec Baldwin: And try to get things done.
Carmen Mehta: And get things done.
Alec Baldwin: More about Zarin Mehta’s work with the New York Philharmonic in a minute.
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Alec Baldwin: Now what’s changed here in the time that you’ve been here? When you came here as in what was the situation for New York – the Philharmonic?
Zarin Mehta: The Philharmonic?
Alec Baldwin: ‘Cause the Philharmonic has unique concerns compared to other – the salaries are higher. Correct?
Zarin Mehta: No. The salaries are competitive with the major orchestra of Chicago, Boston, etc.
Alec Baldwin: Even though the cost of living is higher?
Zarin Mehta: Yeah. That’s unfortunately one of the things that the musicians here have to cope with. I think the changes that have taken place have been more in the way we’ve taken the orchestra out of Avery Fisher Hall. Much bigger, better programmed park concerts. So we’re getting a lot of good people. The attendance in the parks has gone up enormously. Our use of the Internet and the media has changed enormously. We’re not making recordings anymore, but we are taking our broadcasts and downloading them and so on.
Alec Baldwin: Why aren’t you making recordings anymore?
Zarin Mehta: Nobody’s making recordings.
Alec Baldwin: No one’s buying them.
Zarin Mehta: No. Nobody’s buying. You can get it free on the Internet. You can, you know, go on the iTunes and get any piece you want from 18 different sources.
Alec Baldwin: Are you selling your material on the Internet?
Zarin Mehta: Not really.
Alec Baldwin: Or you’re giving it for free?
Zarin Mehta: Giving it for free. The fact that our radio broadcasts are now international is a huge change. You can hear New York Philharmonic concert in Moscow or in Adelaide. Any of that never happened before. So -
Alec Baldwin: Technology’s what’s changed.
Zarin Mehta: Technology has – we’ve taken hold of it and I think that’s important. We just did our first television show that we did in house. We brought the people and we directed it and we did a concert from here for Chinese New Year’s. I’m told that it was watched by 100 million people. That’s extraordinary that a classical music show was watched by 100 million people.
Alec Baldwin: How have you changed during the time you’ve been here?
Zarin Mehta: How have I changed?
Alec Baldwin: Have you enjoyed being in New York?
Zarin Mehta: Yeah. I loved it. I loved it.
Alec Baldwin: But you’re going back to Chicago –
Zarin Mehta: I’m going back to Chicago.
Alec Baldwin: – ‘cause your family’s in Chicago.
Zarin Mehta: It’s a little cheaper to live there and my family’s there – my daughter – but otherwise we would stay here. My wife is not very happy about leaving New York. She’s happy to go for the reason I just said, but we’re both unhappy to leave here. If we had enough money I’d keep a pied a’ terre here.
Alec Baldwin: Sure. Are you gonna basically retire when you’re there or are you gonna still work?
Zarin Mehta: No. Look, I’m not – my father, as I said, worked till he was 92. My grandfather worked till he was 92. I don’t know if I’ll work till I’m 92. It’s not because of that, but I just don’t feel like I can sit at home and do nothing or go and play golf. I’m not that type.
Alec Baldwin: When you’re home – and first of all I wanna just mention – you enjoy going to the concert hall. In the time I’ve known you, you’re never more happy and never more relaxed than when the music is playing and you still have high degree of appreciation and real love of concert music, which I find is not mutually exclusive from, but interesting, considering your wife who’s very, very critical. I always know what’s what in the concert world, dilettante that I am, - this pianist, this conductor - by looking at Carmen Mehta’s response.
Zarin Mehta: You don’t wanna go to the opera with her.
Alec Baldwin: You don’t. She’s even more vocal. She’s even more harsh in her judgments ‘cause she’s an opera file.
Zarin Mehta: Yeah, but she’s a singer.
Alec Baldwin: She’s a singer.
Zarin Mehta: So, you know, that comes naturally to her.
Alec Baldwin: When the two of you are home do you listen to music?
Zarin Mehta: Sometimes. You know, we basically – we don’t put on background music. First of all I listen to music that I really want to hear, and often on a Saturday afternoon or something I’ll hear – I’m reading the paper in the den and Carmen’s got – we have a little player in the bedroom – and she’s off listening to Bach.
Alec Baldwin: That’s her go-to music.
Zarin Mehta: Yeah. She’s just , you know – and I agree with her.
Carmen Mehta: Listening to music has been so much a part of my life, and absorbing it. And I must say, when anything goes wrong with my life or with my thought or with my family, I think it is a constant help to have a musical phrase, the line of a poem, in my mind. That means music has fed the internal life. So it’s fine, and you’re never lonely.
Zarin Mehta : Sometimes I just put the paper down and hear "The Well-Tempered Clavier" coming through.
Alec Baldwin: You like Bach?
Zarin Mehta: Oh, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Why?
Zarin Mehta: Well, there’s a kind of order to it. There’s a kind of clarity. There’s a rhythm. It just is uplifting. There’s a joyousness to his music, which I find extraordinary. Same thing with Mozart. All those adjectives apply to Mozart, and I guess Beethoven. I mean, it sounds pretty trite but – Schubert I love.
Alec Baldwin: No. People wanna hear this.
Zarin Mehta: Schubert. I love Schubert. Schubert’s song –
Alec Baldwin: Who’s someone you’re indifferent to?
Zarin Mehta: [Laughs] You haven’t got enough time for that.
Alec Baldwin: Give me one example of someone and without being disparaging –
Zarin Mehta: From the 20th Century?
Alec Baldwin: – from the 19th century that you think has been given a very, very generous airing. Someone who you consider lucky.
Zarin Mehta: Oh, I can’t think of anybody. I think the people who are –
Alec Baldwin: The ones that survive are the cream.
Zarin Mehta: – the ones that deserve to survive. Absolutely. Absolutely, and the same thing will happen in this century. You know, Shostakovich is going to survive. Benjamin Britten is going to survive.
Alec Baldwin: So there’s not a time you’re sitting there with Alan or with Maazel before that and they say, “I wanna play the blah, blah, blah,” and you say, “Oh, God, whatever you do, don’t play that.” There must be some of that.
Zarin Mehta: Yeah, but they’ll do it anyway.
Alec Baldwin: Of course, but is there some of that?
Zarin Mehta: No. No. Of course – yeah because –
Alec Baldwin: But it’s not composer specific.
Zarin Mehta: And don’t forget that in today’s world if you look at the composers of today, each conductor or pianist or violinist will have his or her – not necessarily favorites – but people they feel that they want to perform and there’s others they don’t feel like performing. That’s –
Alec Baldwin: Right. You think there’s a difference?
Zarin Mehta: Of course. Look, you were with me when Manny Ax did his 100th concert with the New York Philharmonic and he played this piece of Messiaen. He’d never played it before. We talked him into it. Is he gonna play it again? I don’t know. Did he like it? He said, “I gotta play it a few more times before I can say I like it,” but there are other pianists who adore the piece and play it all the time. So I think that’s perfectly natural. These are people who are recreating something. They have to feel something – they have to be on the same plate.
Alec Baldwin: You have seen the greatest people. What’s something you watch, one of the greats that you watch soloist, vocalist, conductor where you sat there and you just gasped and said, “My God. I’m so happy I was here to see this.”
Zarin Mehta: Yeah. One of the things that stands out in my mind was the concert we did right after 9/11 and we were supposed to do a concert with Anne-Sophie Mutter playing Beethoven and so on. Of course she didn’t come and we decided we couldn’t do that kind of an opening night and Kurt Masur was in Europe and I called him and I said, “I think we should do a concert. We shouldn’t cancel it, and how about if you consider doing the Brahm’s Requiem?” and he said, “Absolutely.” I said, “I have Tom Hampson who’s ready to do it. The chorus is ready to do it. The orchestra’s on its way back from Stuttgart where they are stuck during 9/11.”
And so he came and did it and I made a little speech to welcome everybody and I said, “And please no applause at the end. Just hold hands, look at each other.” Kurt was a great conductor, really did something spiritually extraordinary that evening and everybody who was there felt that. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.
The other one that comes to mind was when we played in Dresden. We did three concerts in Dresden in 2005 for the reopening of the Church of Our Lady, which was bombed in the waning days of the Second World War during the firebombing, and it stayed as a ruble until the mid ‘90s when they put money together to rebuild it. And a remarkable man came to see me and said, “You know, we don’t know who bombed Dresden, but it would be good if an American orchestra was to go and play there.”
I went to Dresden and I met lots of people and we agreed to play there with Lauren conducting and Volkswagen, which actually built a factory there, sponsored the concerts. We got a German cellist to play a work written specifically for that event by an Englishman. So he had three culpable parties, if you want, who participated and we finished the concert with "Death and Transfiguration," Richard Strauss.
And that was a magical, magical unbelievable moment in this church, sharing this music. It seemed like it was written for that occasion and people were standing outside as the orchestra because there was no dressing rooms of course in a church and they walked out. It was a remarkable, magical moment.
Alec Baldwin: My good friends, Zarin Mehta and his wife Carmen, have packed up and moved to Chicago. Carmen told me their apartment sold in record time.
Carmen Mehta: Our apartment went up and there was only a couple of weeks and we were told that it had been made an offer on and it turns out to be Zarin’s successor, Matthew VanBesien. Now Matthew was running around with his agent and –
Alec Baldwin: Unaware that it was your apartment he was – until he saw –
Carmen Mehta: Unaware. He came into our apartment. It was just an open house. So he came into the apartment, thought he liked it. Obviously it’s in a very good place for working at the Philharmonic, and as he was walking through the rooms we have our pictures and pictures of all kinds of musicians all over the place. So he finally realized that he was in our apartment and –
Alec Baldwin: What he told me that I really liked was what gave it away was the collection of the CD’s, he said.
Carmen Mehta: Oh yes.
Alec Baldwin: He said he saw the music on the wall and he went, “Who the hell are these people? Look at the stuff they have.”
Carmen Mehta: And I’m happy to say we can leave all our LP’s because we don’t have the equipment to play them anymore and Matthew does. So that’s great.
Alec Baldwin: No
Carmen Mehta: So we don’t have to think about packing them up and sending them to someone.
Alec Baldwin: Let’s propose that the LP stay with the apartment, whoever buys the apartment.
Carmen Mehta: Okay.
Alec Baldwin: I’m not suggesting that the apartment become the official residence as it were of the executive director of the Philharmonic, but…
Carmen Mehta: It’s just the right place to be.
Alec Baldwin: Even though I will see you again, it truly, truly, truly – it will not be the same. Not – I wanna say not the same without you plural, meaning you and your husband. It won’t be the same without you, sitting next to you and sitting in that box with you with some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.
Carmen Mehta: And for me.
Alec Baldwin: I’m Alec Baldwin. Here’s The Thing is produced by WNYC Radio. Thanks this week to Mark Travis and The New York Philharmonic.
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