The orchestra is the instrument Zubin Mehta always wanted to play

Zubin Mehta is leading the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in its Singapore debut here next month. -- PHOTO: LUCA MOGGI/TEATRO DEL MAGGIO MUSICALE FIORENTINO
Zubin Mehta is leading the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in its Singapore debut here next month. -- PHOTO: LUCA MOGGI/TEATRO DEL MAGGIO MUSICALE FIORENTINO

The orchestra is legendary conductor Zubin Mehta's instrument

Conductor Zubin Mehta's long history with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra has moments of legend: In 1967, he flew into the country on a plane full of ammunition to replace a conductor who had fled on the eve of the Six-Day War.

The Mumbai-born conductor ended up staying. Two years later, he became the orchestra's music adviser, then its music director in 1977, which became a lifetime appointment in 1981.

Forget the fraught politics of the Middle East. In a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles, Mehta says he wants to focus on the music as the Israel Philharmonic makes its Singapore debut on Nov 11. This is part of a five-city tour of Asia, meant to promote "goodwill all over the world".

"We're very grateful to be invited," the 78-year-old says. On the programme is Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, a work he first recorded with the orchestra in 1964. The concert at Marina Bay Sands' MasterCard Theatres also features Vivaldi's Concerto In B Minor For Four Violins and Mozart's Symphony No. 36 (Linz).

Singapore is the fourth stop on the tour, which begins with Bangkok in Thailand on Monday and sees the orchestra visiting South Korea and Japan before coming here. The trip concludes in China on Nov 16.

It has been nearly a decade since Mehta was here and he is looking forward to coming back.

"I used to visit Singapore very often," he says, bringing up his last concert here in 2005, with Italy's Maggio Musicale Fiorentino at the Esplanade Concert Hall. His first visit here was in the 1980s, with the New York Philharmonic, which he led until 1991 - the longest tenure in the orchestra's history.

Mehta is one of the most highly regarded conductors in the world, famed for his flamboyant style and with a resume that includes leading the fabled Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Berlin Philharmonic by the age of 25.

A nod from him is enough to launch a career and his proteges include Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov and, more recently, the award-winning pianists of Duo Amal, Palestinian Bishara Haroni and Israel's Yaron Kohlberg.

Mehta's baton has led concerts from the crowd-pleasing (the 1994 Three Tenors concerts in Rome and Los Angeles featuring Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo) to those certain to captivate only aficionados (the complete four-opera Ring Cycle by Wagner - performed three times and with different orchestras).

He stands out as the lone Indian conductor in high-flying Western classical music circles. His brother Zarin is better known for his organisational and management skills and was president and executive director of the New York Philharmonic from 2000 to 2012.

"In India, there's so much music. Western music finds it difficult to compete," Zubin says. For that reason, he and Zarin co-chair the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation in their birthplace, Mumbai, to teach young children more about Western classical music.

"We have 250 young kids who are studying music. They may not become musicians, but they will go to concerts."

Mehta credits his passion for the Western art form to his father and first teacher Mehli, an accomplished violinist who died in 2002. In 1959, Mehli moved to the United States, first playing with the Curtis Quartet of Philadelphia. From 1964 to 1998, he mentored many American music students as conductor and leader of the American Youth Symphony.

Zubin recalls that during his childhood in India, his father would take the family to every concert of Western classical music, especially those featuring visiting musicians such as violinist Yehudi Menuhin. "He would play recordings with the musical score and show me how to follow that," Mehta recalls.

Mehli was also founder, concertmaster and conductor of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s, a semi-professional ensemble which Zubin describes as comprising "amateur Parsees, professional Goans, professional English and Jewish players and the wind section was the Navy Band".

His family is Parsee, descended from 8th-century Persian immigrants to India.

The young Zubin grew up backstage, watching rehearsals and considering the orchestra his personal plaything. "I grew up with the orchestra as an instrument. I always wanted to play this instrument."

So his parents were not entirely surprised when he opted out of medical school to leave India for Vienna at age 18. "The upper-middle class knows only five or six professions, but it was not a shock to them. My father supported it," he says, laughing.

He enrolled in the conducting programme of the Akademie fur Musik, where he studied under Austrian conductor Hans Swarowsky. As a student, he lacked the funds to travel much, so he stayed in the city and attended concerts, watching great conductors such as Herbert von Karajan in action. "I'd listen to one conductor one evening after another. It was very educational."

The Jeunesses Musicales society, which promotes young musicians, heard him conduct at the Vienna academy and gave him his first public gig, "a full concert of Brahms". Good reviews led to more appointments and, a few years later, he was invited to lead the Vienna Philharmonic, signalling he had arrived.

To this day, he considers the Vienna Philharmonic among the top orchestral ensembles in the world. "They believe in their own type of sound, they have the courage to stick to it," he says.

He also has a soft spot for the Israel Philharmonic - "Of course, I'm in my 46th year as music director!" - and is looking forward to bringing them not just to play in Singapore, but also to various community events the ensemble is engaging in. These include a master class in violin and cello for selected students of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and a dress rehearsal open to some 500 students and members of Singapore's pioneer generation.

He enjoys outreach concerts, which have the capacity to inspire young minds to take on careers in music, just as his was so many years ago. "We must take care of the future generation, not just the public audience, but also the performers," he says.

With his packed schedule, he just hopes there will be time for his necessary nap before going on stage. "I do need to sleep in the afternoon," he says with a laugh.

akshitan@sph.com.sg