All facets of a debonair lifestyle

All facets of a debonair lifestyle

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All facets of a debonair lifestyle

You don’t need to know Western classical music or the tradition of Philharmonic orchestras to acknowledge the greatness of Zubin Mehta, so long as you are tuned in to his accomplishments. Similarly, you don’t need to be an expert on the subject to write about the life and music of this living legend, so long as you are innately convinced about the virtuosity of the performer as a professional. Bakhtiar K Dadabhoy is a self-confessed ignoramus on Western classical music, though a vehement admirer of Zubin Mehta. He has meticulously tracked the legendary musician’s career over the decades, and his lack of understanding of the creativity that has made a ‘Bombay boy’ an international celebrity, was not allowed to come in the way. Instead, it appears to have strengthened the author’s resolve. After all, he had chronicled the lives and achievement of the greats from the Parsee community — JRD Tata and Nani Palkhivala, for instance, on whom he has written books. It would be not just silly but even a literary blasphemy if Dadabhoy had to give Zubin Mehta a miss. Given the handicaps of not being an expert, of not enjoying unrestricted access to many of the papers and documents that could throw greater light on the man and his work, and of not having “more than peripheral contact with the subject of the biography”, in the author’s own words, what Dadabhoy has crafted by way of an ‘authorised’ biography is a remarkable piece of writing by any yardstick. It’s never easy to tell the story of a person who does not need an introduction, but then stories are told more often about people who don’t need an introduction. The difficulty for the biographer lies in the balance he needs to strike in being good to his subject and honest to his craft. This can be conflicting; while the dominance of the first can degenerate into hagiography, an over-emphasis on the latter can result in a lopsided account that seeks more to establish the author’s, rather than his (or her) subject’s credentials. Dadabhoy has done wonderfully here. While he has recorded unfettered praise for Zubin Mehta, he has not glossed over criticism. This is just as well, because a sanitised version of the legendary musician and conductor would have done grave injustice to a man who has lived by his terms, faced adversities and rose to convert them into glittering opportunities. Zubin Mehta has every reason to feel good about this book. The author too must be ecstatic. Not only has he successfully chronicled another Parsee legend from Mumbai but has also in the process learnt in a few years far more than what he knew over the past decades of his life about the world of Western classical music. Zubin Mehta grew up in what was then Bombay in a musical family; many others too have. He had the opportunity to go abroad and be trained by masters; others too have benefited similarly. He was fortunate to have been spotted by influential people who guided his destiny; others also have been lucky in a similar manner. He got breaks, often out of the blue; this is not uncommon, as others too have enjoyed the privilege. Mehta went on to become a legend while others ended up being good or very good, or even outstanding at best. None, like him, has had the honour to simultaneously conduct two major orchestras in North America (Montreal and Los Angeles). None has bonded so closely and in so sustained a fashion as him, with the world-renowned Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (it’s become life-long). None can come close to him when it comes to reflecting the music of central Europe — of Vienna, for instance. The book charts the progress Mehta has made, tentatively to begin with, and then rapidly expanding his footprints across the world, taking the musical world by storm. Needless to say, he has had his detractors, his bad moments, misunderstandings with people, and his share of condemnation and criticism in the course of the journey.  There are personal issues as well (such as his failed first marriage and a flamboyant, supposedly debonair life-style. One of his friends is quoted in the book as saying that his interest in Los Angeles, apart from his parents and music, was girls, girls and girls). The book reflects on these, puts them in perspective, and offers a holistic persona. There has been a great deal of debate on whether Zubin Mehta has done enough to promote Indian music too, through experiments in fusion with Indian artistes. His critics point out that the maestro has done little in this direction. But the author debunks the thought, saying that Mehta shared sitar legend Ravi Shankar’s passion to bridge the musical divide between the East and the West. (They even played together on occasions, became close friends, and hoped to together perform in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.) But Dadabhoy also adds that “he (Zubin) was well aware of the perils of mixing the two. Zubin told The New York Times that ‘this isn’t so much East meets West as Bombay meets Benares’”. In other words, Mehta felt that the proposed mix was about two Indian varieties. Implicit in this remark was an acknowledgement of the vast repertoire and variety that existed in Indian music itself. If Zubin Mehta was apprehensive about the mix of two different kinds of music, he was opposed to the mix of politics and music — although he held strong views on the atrocities the Jews had suffered across the world in the first half of the nineties and has been always supportive of their cause. His show in Malaysia was once cancelled because the Malaysian regime objected to Jewish compositions which were to be played. But the Israeli Philharmonic did play alongside the Bavarian State Orchestra of Germany, hours after accompanying the Bavarian orchestra musicians to a former Nazi camp. His belief, the author states, is that if the Germans and the Jews could come together in the spirit of music, someday the Arabs and the Jews too could unite. This happened to some extent under the baton of another conductor and Mehta’s friend, Daniel Barenboim, in 2005, when the latter brought together Israeli and Arab musicians for a concert in Ramallah. There are interesting stories in the book about how Zubin Mehta, for all his greatness, failed to click with the audience and more so with music critics, in Los Angeles, whereas he was an instant hit in New York. The Los Angeles Times was unsparing, accusing the maestro of “superficial performances which stressed bombast over subtlety and revealed impetuosity rather than maturity”. Other critics found in his music conducting, sparks of genius but seldom a “mellow glow”. As the director of the New York Philharmonic, however, he seemed to be in his elements. His first concert was an outdoor one before an estimate crowd of 1,40,000. The author says that the audience gave the performance a “rousing ovation”, and that the orchestra had taken a liking to its new conductor. He quotes Newsweek as writing that the “New Yorkers may have been expecting arrogance and erratic temperament; what they got was good humour — and musical authority”. The ‘expectation’ the magazine refers to, is a reflection of the stereotyping that Zubin Mehta had to endure. Although India’s son of the soil has performed in his native country, including most recently in Kashmir, those performances have been few and far between — and certainly nothing compared to the frequency abroad. Now in his early eighties, he is unlikely to have the time to make up for that loss. Nevertheless, Zubin Mehta remains arguably the most recognised, the most respected and the most colourful Indian-born musician on the global stage.Source

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