Chicago -- While Zubin Mehta's lifetime appointment as music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is a rare and exalted honor, few conductors would have the patience for it. Fewer still would have the courage.
If any conductor and orchestra were to be a target for a terrorist's bomb, it would be Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic.
Mehta's appearance with the orchestra Tuesday evening at the Kennedy Center will be marked by the presence of metal detectors and will be attended by armed Israeli and American plainclothes security.
For Mehta, this is merely business as usual.
"Since 1969, I've spent three months of every year in Israel -- that's one-fourth of my life," says Mehta, 58. "I've been through the country's ups and downs, and while I don't always agree with everything the government does, I love the fact that in a democracy like Israel, you're always free to disagree."
Mehta's life appointment -- the only one of its kind in recent history -- came after Israel's controversial invasion of Lebanon in 1982. At a time when Israel's international standing was at an all-time low, and the country itself was bitterly divided, Mehta canceled engagements elsewhere to conduct the philharmonic. In gratitude, the orchestra -- which is run by the musicians themselves as a cooperative -- made him conductor for life.
"His commitment to the country and to the philharmonic is something I've never heard of in another orchestra," says bass player Gabriel Vole, the orchestra's personnel manager. "He knows all the first names and family names of every musician, as well as those of their wives and husbands and children. He's participated in many happy days -- weddings and bar-mitzvahs. He's part of us."
Thus it was almost inevitable that Mehta would negotiate the political hurdles necessary to enable the Israel Philharmonic to begin performing the music of Richard Strauss.
Although Mehta is one of the great interpreters of Strauss, Tuesday evening's performance -- the beginning of the orchestra's U.S. tour -- will be the first time Americans have the chance to hear Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic play one of his works.
Strauss' mighty autobiographical tone poem, "Ein Heldenleben," which occupies the entire second half of the program, translates as "A Hero's Life." But Strauss, who cooperated all too willingly (at least initially) with the propagandists of the Third Reich, is no hero in Israel. Until this season, performances of his music, along with that of Richard Wagner, had been forbidden.
Almost all orchestral musicians love the music of Strauss and Wagner, however, and the Israelis are no exception. When the ban on Strauss was lifted last September, the musicians responded with all the signs of first love. Their performance of "Heldenleben" in Tokyo in October electrified the audience and the music critics, who declared that it had not been performed so brilliantly since Fritz Reiner's heyday with the Chicago Symphony in the 1950s.
"When the New York Philharmonic performs 'Heldenleben,' it's great," Mehta says. "But when we play it, it's as if Strauss wrote it yesterday. I feel a wild energy throughout the orchestra, and I just give the musicians their head."
The orchestra also wants to perform Wagner. But that's not likely to happen soon, says Mehta, whose own passion for Wagner is signified by his presence in Chicago, where he is rehearsing "Siegfried" as part of his four-year project to stage the monumental "Ring" cycle with the Chicago Lyric Opera.
In light of Mehta's interest in Wagner's music, it's something of an irony that the Israel Philharmonic is the one orchestra with which he cannot perform it.
Although his music is regularly heard on radio broadcasts, performances of Wagner continue to be forbidden because of the composer's notorious anti-Semitism. Wagner's Jew-baiting tracts were essential in forming the thinking of the young Adolf Hitler, and his music was heard on loudspeakers as Jews arrived at the death camps and when they were later marched to the gas chambers.
"Proscribing Strauss was purely political," Mehta says. "At best, one could say of Strauss that he was a fool who was deluded by villains; at worst, that he was an opportunist. The issue of Wagner is much stickier. Hitler may have misunderstood Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but -- unfortunately -- he understood the psychotic ravings of Wagner all too well."
In 1981, Mehta performed Wagner in Israel -- as an encore. He told the audience what he was about to do, letting it know that those who were offended could leave. The resulting storm of protest made front-page news as far away as New York and Tokyo.
An emotional issue
"Wagner is a purely emotional issue in Israel," Mehta says. "But it's an important one, and we learned that we cannot insult those who come to hear us and who still have numbers on their arms."