On Sunday, Zubin Mehta conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra for what might be the last time, although his retirement does not become official until the fall. Benjamin Kerstein recounts Mehta’s career:
Mehta, the first non-Israeli citizen to win the Israel Prize and the conductor most widely identified with the Jewish state, was born in India in 1936. . . . By age twenty-five, Mehta had performed with several major European orchestras, but was at an impasse in his career. . . . In 1961, his association with Israel began when he received a telegram from the Palestinian Philharmonic Orchestra, the old name for the Israel Philharmonic, which for some reason had never been changed in official correspondence: a major conductor had fallen ill, and Mehta was recruited.
He instantly fell in love with Israel. What he called the “organized mess” he found in the country reminded him of his childhood home in Bombay. In Israel, he said, “People always speak at the same time, everyone gives advice, everyone has a firm opinion. When you open the window in Bombay, you see at the same time 5,000 people.” He said he felt, “at home.”
Mehta quickly put the orchestra through its paces, conducting a series of works that had never been performed in Israel before. . . . He was overseas when the Six-Day War broke out in 1967. Mehta canceled concerts in Paris and Budapest and flew to Tel Aviv with the help of the Israeli ambassador in Rome, who managed to get him onto an ammunition-laden cargo plane. Mehta made the journey, he said, to “stand by the state and my musicians.”