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Music Notes: meeting Ravinia's new main man

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It is hardly surprising that Zarin Mehta, Ravinia's new executive director, was brought up steeped in Western classical music despite his having been born and raised in India. His father Mehli Mehta was a violinist and the founder and concertmaster of the Bombay Symphony, so it was only natural that his children should develop such an interest. (Mehta's brother is Zubin, the internationally known conductor and music director of the New York Philharmonic.)

"We grew up in a totally Western arts atmosphere--not just music, but literature, painting, architecture--because of my father's attraction to those things," says Mehta. "Music is not that important an element in the life of an Asian as it is in. the Western world, where it is a major industry. You don't go into the house and turn on the radio or record player. There were very, very few of our friends and colleagues at school who were into classical music. We were quite unusual in that regard. For us, it was like there were two lives."

Mehta, it seems, has managed to successfully reconcile those two lives; this season, after having been approached late last year by Ravinia's retiring executive director Edward Gordon, Mehta comes to Chicago from his former post as managing director of the Montreal Symphony.

Mehta's early exposure to Western culture wasn't the only unusual aspect of his upbringing. Mehta and his family are Parsi, which means they practice Zoroastrianism, one of the world's oldest monotheistic religions, making them a minority in India. "The very simplistic basis of the religion is: good thoughts, good words, good deeds," says Mehta. "You can't do better than that."

Parsis came to Bombay from Persia during the Muslim conversion in the seventh century. "Our ancestors were given the choice of staying in Iran and becoming Muslims, or leaving. A handful of us settled north of Bombay where the situation was more tolerant, where we were allowed to continue practicing our religion, as long as we didn't proselytize or intermarry. We stayed a small, tightly-knit community that looked after ourselves, and we eventually were brought into the cultural, governmental, and business life of the country. Much as the Jews of central Europe during the same time, we became the bankers and leading businessmen of the country."

Today, though, says Mehta, the Zoroastrian community is dying out. "My brother and I are perfect examples of the many Parsis who have left India to study abroad, and who haven't gone back. It's difficult to bring your children up in the faith when there's so few of us around." There's also the unwritten rule of not converting people to their religion. "So, within a couple of generations, it will be a largely nonexistent community."

Mehta left India at the age of 16 to study accounting in England, and he reveled in the new cultural life he found there. "I was living miles away from the center of the city, but would go down to the Festival Hall, Albert Hall, and Covent Garden three to five times a week, standing through the concerts. Suddenly names I had only known on old 78s and LPs in India--Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Thomas Beecham--I was hearing live. I loved it."

After Mehta had become a chartered accountant, he decided to come to North America. His first lure was New York, but this was the time of the Cuban missile crisis, and Mehta was told that if he accepted a job in the States he would be drafted and serving in England or Germany within three months. He believed what he heard and went a bit farther north, to Canada (where his brother was already music director of the Montreal Symphony), and took a job with the accounting firm Coopers and Lybrand. He stayed for nearly 20 years, working his way up the corporate ladder to full partner.

"During the time that Zubin was [in Montreal], I refused to get involved with the symphony, because the major job of a board member is fundraising. I didn't feel I could ask for money for the Montreal Symphony while my brother was its music director. I joined the board a few years after he left." A few years later he became its managing director, a full-time job.

Under Mehta's nine-year tenure as managing director, which coincided with Charles Dutoit's as music director, the Montreal Symphony became one of the most respected orchestras in North America. Income increased fivefold, subscriptions nearly doubled, and the operating budget tripled. The orchestra has also become widely known through its more than 50 recordings and its syndicated radio broadcasts, as well as through tours to Europe and throughout the States, including a tour that opened the 1988 Ravinia season. But despite the orchestra's reputation, Mehta says, he could not bring in many big-name conductors or soloists. "Montreal just wasn't on their circuit."

Mehta was Edward Gordon's first choice as his Ravinia successor. "At first I said, 'No, I'm flattered, but I'm very happy here.' But the more I began to think about it, the more my wife and I decided it might be time for a change." Mehta was attracted by the idea of working with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and with James Levine, and also by the city itself. "There are other U.S. cities that have approached me for different things, but I wasnt particularly interested in living in those cities. I have a nice feel for Chicago, and wouldn't be here if I didn't."

He also has a good relationship with Edward Gordon. "I think he felt that, in his retirement, I would continue very much along the lines that he had developed and continue from there. Ed will continue to be involved with the [Steans] Institute [Ravinia's summer program for young musicians], and I will call upon his expertise frequently. On opening night, we'll be sitting together at the main table, but it won't be 'my' table; we'll be sitting together as friends and colleagues."

Ravinia opens its 1990 season this weekend with three Chicago Symphony concerts, all under the direction of James Levine. Tonight's gala opening features the monumental Mahler Resurrection Symphony with soprano Dawn Upshaw, mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar, and the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Tomorrow evening's concert features violinist Itzhak Perlman in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, along with music of Mozart and Alban Berg. Sunday's program is all-Gershwin, including Levine as both conductor and pianist in the original Aeolian Hall version of Rhapsody in Blue. Call 708-433-8800 for further information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. merideth.

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