The Ravinia Festival: A talk with Zarin Mehta

3. Life Before Ravinia

FRANK J. OTERI: Before we go a little bit further into details about Ravinia, I’d like to find out a little bit more about you and what brought you to Ravinia, and how long you’ve been at Ravinia, and where you were before.

ZARIN MEHTA: Well, very briefly, my background is I’m an accountant, professionally. I was a partner in Coopers and Lybrand in Montreal and was on the board of the Montreal Symphony. After about 10 years on the board, we’d been looking for a managing director. My colleagues on the board talked me into taking a leave of absence to manage the Montreal Symphony, which I did in 1981, and sort of got bitten by the bug. It’s like entering on the lawn, you know, you sort of taste it and you say hey, it’s not so bad. Making money isn’t the end of the world, and I was very satisfied with what I was doing. It also happened to be a very great period for the Montreal Symphony because I’d been instrumental in bringing Charles Dutoit to the music directorship of the orchestra.

FRANK J. OTERI: That was the beginning of the CD revolution. He was really the first conductor to…

ZARIN MEHTA: That’s right. He was one of the first people who knew about it. He found this extraordinary church to record in. We worked very hard to find the right repertoire that didn’t conflict with other orchestras and conductors, and suddenly the orchestra took off. We planned tours, we did all kinds of things, and we had great success. One of the places we came to on tour was Ravinia, in 1988, and we opened the Festival here, played three concerts on the weekend, and had great success. I liked the place, I met the people, et cetera, and Ed Gordon, who’d been the managing director, or the executive director of the festival since 1968 or ’70 or something like that, decided to retire a year later, in ’89. And I ran into him again, we were on tour with the Montreal Symphony, we were in New York, he was in the same hotel as I was, we ran into each other in the elevator. That’s how things happen, right?

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow.

ZARIN MEHTA: And he said, “why don’t you think of coming here?” And I said, “No, I’m so happy with Montreal,” et cetera, “my family’s there,” et cetera. We ended up on a tour in Japan and after four weeks of touring, I decided, you know, maybe I should do something else. Anyway, I said, fine, I might be interested, we talked, and I met Jimmy Levine, who’s the music director, I said, what do you think, and you know, and we decided it was a good idea.

FRANK J. OTERI: Going back earlier, before that, growing up, were you a musician? Did you play an instrument?

ZARIN MEHTA: No, I don’t play an instrument. I am not a musician. I grew up in an extraordinary musical atmosphere in India where my father was “Mr. Western Classical Music” of the country. I think the real key question is how did he become a classical musician?

FRANK J. OTERI: That is a good question.

ZARIN MEHTA: He was born in 1908 and he started studying the violin. I mean, there were no records as such, there was no radio in the ’20’s, really, radio just started, I don’t know what happened in India. Yet he became totally imbued with the idea of classical music. And when we came around, my brother and I, in the ’30’s, ’40’s I guess, we were born in ’36 and ’38, we were surrounded by this Messianic man who only knew about music. He had no other interest in life. I don’t mean that he was narrow-minded: he was interested in art and you know, he came to cricket games with us and so on, but I mean the music was such an important element in his life that… his studio was in our living room, so we were in and out listening to chamber music being practiced, his solo music being rehearsed, he founded the Bombay Symphony, and he would take sectional rehearsals in our living room, so for instance I grew up maybe listening to the 2nd violin section playing the Beethoven 7th Symphony.

FRANK J. OTERI: And not knowing the rest of the piece. [laughs]

ZARIN MEHTA: Well, you know, it’s one of those things. You know, and we used to sit around and set up the music for everyone when we were 6, 7 years old. That sort of thing.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, in addition to background in western classical music, were you exposed to a lot of Indian classical music?

ZARIN MEHTA: Not that much. Not that much. Actually, my exposure to Indian classical music came about more when I went to London as a student. I don’t know why. I mean, we went to a few concerts. There weren’t that many in those days in Bombay. Certainly Indian dance we experienced quite a lot, I mean, there were some people that, you know, were friends of my family and there were, you know, well-known dancers, and we would go to their concerts. But we never really were exposed and talked about it enough to know enough, any more than maybe you would.