Do conductors get better with age? “Haha, that’s for you guys to decide!” chortles Zubin Mehta. The 87-year old maestro has certainly been around the classical music block a few times. “With age comes experience too. Conducting is experience. I’ve been conducting both the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics over the last fifty years and I haven’t missed a single season.” Mehta has just returned to his home in Florence from a special concert at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival, paying homage to his old friend and colleague, Daniel Barenboim, a mere pup at just 80 years of age. 

Zubin Mehta (second from the right) at the Hommage Daniel Barenboim
© Salzburger Festspiele | Marco Borrelli

In Salzburg, the Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino accompanied star performers like Plácido Domingo, Lang Lang and Cecilia Bartoli, Mehta sharing podium duties with Barenboim. Safely back in Florence, Mehta is preoccupied, worried about the precarious financial situation of “his” opera house, the Maggio Musicale of which he was chief conductor from 1985 to 2017. Mehta is a hero there and a new hall was named after him in December 2021. 

“The opera house is having immense financial problems,” he sighs, “so they might cancel six months of the rest of the year. It’s very sad. The Maggio has a magnificent orchestra and the halls are both acoustically very good. We just had a run of Carmen, Don Giovanni and Otello, with concerts in between. It keeps me very busy, but all of a sudden we might have to cancel the rest of the season.” There was a plan, Mehta tells me, for the Maggio to tour China, “but they cannot close the theatre and then send us to play abroad.”

Zubin Mehta
© Michele Monasta | Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

On a brighter note, and more prominent in Mehta’s diary, is his imminent return to one of the first professional orchestras he ever conducted, the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra. Mehta was born into a musical family. His father, Mehli, was a fine violinist who founded the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. Young Zubin was allowed to lead sectional rehearsals and, later, full orchestra rehearsals, so he got the conducting bug early. Aged 18, he went to Vienna to study with Hans Swarowsky at the Akademie für Musik. 

1958 was a pivotal year for Mehta. He won first prize in the Liverpool International Conductor’s Competition, and immediately headed to Belgrade. “It was one of my first professional engagements,” he recalls. “I was sent there by the Jeunesses Musicales in Vienna as an exchange – they sent a Serbian conductor to Vienna and I went to Belgrade. I made the trip from Liverpool to Belgrade by train! It was my first time travelling in Europe, so I remember it vividly.”

Zubin Mehta
© Marko Djokovic | Belgrade Philharmonic

I ask Mehta what his first impressions were of the Belgrade Philharmonic and he shrugs. “Well, I was not used to any orchestra, so it was hard to judge, but I enjoyed it! I did the Symphonie fantastique and a young lady played the César Franck Symphonic Variations and I started with Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d’un faune, which is not an easy piece to conduct.” It must have been a huge test for an untested conductor. 

Mehta has returned to conduct the orchestra periodically. “It’s a very good orchestra,” he tells me. “You know, their strings have a Russian schooling and they have very good violins. I remember about ten years ago I conducted Mahler’s Third Symphony and they had a brilliant trumpet player for the off-stage solos.” 

Over the years, orchestra and conductor have forged a special relationship. In 2005, Mehta initiated a fund to help replenish the orchestra’s instrumental stock. Then, in 2010, he was named the honorary president of the foundation which now bears his name, the Zubin Mehta Belgrade Philharmonic Foundation. Later, in 2013, he headed a gala concert that helped raise funds for the Belgrade Philharmonic to make its first tour to the United States. 

Zubin Mehta with the Belgrade Philharmonic in 2015
© Marko Djokovic | Belgrade Philharmonic

In many ways, Mehta has been something of a guardian angel to the orchestra, donating his conducting fees to the Foundation. In recent years, he has also been assiduous in helping Belgrade to raise funds to build a new concert hall. The orchestra’s present home, the Kolarac Concert Hall has its limitations. “The hall is quite small,” Mehta explains, “acoustically quite good but very uncomfortable, both for the orchestra and for the audience.”

In 2021, after some delay caused by the pandemic, Mehta returned to Belgrade to celebrate sixty years of affiliation with the orchestra, from 1958–2018. He used the occasion to praise the orchestra’s chief conductor Gabriel Feltz: “he has done a wonderful job in the last few years. They are unrecognisable from before and I, as a conductor, am extremely happy whenever I come back to this orchestra. We have a long-lasting friendship during which we have created a common history. All these years I have followed their progress with great interest and now the news of this new concert hall is the best thing that could happen for everybody, for the orchestra, for the city. You have a great orchestra, you have a wonderful public and you deserve a better hall.”

This month, Mehta returns to conduct the opening gala concert of the Belgrade Philharmonic’s 100th anniversary season. He then takes the orchestra on a mini-tour of the Balkans to Tirana and Skopje, part of the “Open Balkans” initiative between Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia together with the Belgrade Philharmonic. “It was my idea!” Mehta explains. “I met with the president last year and I said why don’t you send us from Belgrade to Zagreb and further south. I did take them to the Julian Rachlin and Friends Festival in Dubrovnik once (in 2011) and now we’re heading to Tirana and Skopje. I’ve never been to Tirana before.” 

Zubin Mehta and the Belgrade Philharmonic in 2021
© Marko Djokovic | Belgrade Philharmonic

Mehta’s programme for the June concerts pairs two popular symphonies, Beethoven’s Seventh, described by Richard Wagner as “the apotheosis of the dance”, and Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique – the very work that Mehta conducted on his debut with the orchestra back in 1958. “The Fantastique is a revolution every time – of instrumentation, of harmonisation. It’s the portrait of a young man on hashish, and he dreams of his beloved who appears in a sort of Wagnerian motif, an idée fixe that appears in each of the five movements. Every orchestra loves playing the Fantastique because each section – woodwinds, brass, strings – is challenged.” 

It’s a work Mehta has conducted often in his long career, most recently on his triumphant return last March to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the orchestra of which he was the Music Director from 1962–78, the youngest music director of any major American orchestra at the time. Mehta talks enthusiastically about his time in LA, particularly the recordings he made with them for Decca, starting with a Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition – “My first record!” he exclaims, delightedly – that still stands up well to the competition. 

Zubin Mehta conducting the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
© Michele Monasta | Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Also in Los Angeles in March, Mehta led Mahler’s Third Symphony – a work he’s also conducted in Belgrade – to great acclaim. “Mehta seemed more than happy to let the music speak for itself,” wrote our critic in his 5* review. “Mehta’s reading of this most uncynical, perhaps most earnest of Mahler’s symphonies, was a refreshing reminder of the vitality of music.” 

As we sign off, Mehta tells me that before heading on the Belgrade Philharmonic’s Balkans tour, he conducts programmes with the Munich Philharmonic, including Debussy and Ravel, and the Berlin Philharmonic, joining Yefim Bronfman in Bartók, plus Tchaikovsky’s fateful Fourth Symphony. And then he rejoins the Berliners on location in France, at the Rencontres Musicales d’Évian. Zubin Mehta is clearly still in great demand. 

Do conductors get better with age? In Mehta’s case, it’s a persuasive argument.

See forthcoming performances from the Belgrade Philharmonic.
This article was sponsored by the Belgrade Philharmonic