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Profile: Zarin Mehta

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-03-29

The reporter asked Zarin Mehta over lunch what was it like going to world-class concerts three or four times a week, spending much of the rest of his time tending to 181 employees -- including 106 thoroughbred musicians -- having to raise nearly $50 million each year for his institution, and also being relentlessly under the social microscope of the world's culture capital.

"Actually, it's a lot of fun," said the Bombay-born Mr. Mehta, who's marking his fifth year as executive director and president of the New York Philharmonic. "It's an all-consuming job, to be sure, but finding solutions to problems is what I do best. I also tend to have a very positive outlook on life. Blame it on my father."

His father, the late Mehli Mehta, a violinist who was trained in America and founded the Bombay Symphony Orchestra, is largely credited with introducing western classical music to India, which has indigenous musical tradition going back several millennia.

"What I learned from my father was dedication, hard work, a strong sense of ethics, and enjoyment of one's work," Mr. Mehta said. "I suppose these are universal values -- but you can still blame my father for what I've become."

He's become the head of America's oldest symphony orchestra, one that was founded in 1842 by a group of local musicians led by American-born Ureli Corelli Hill. The Orchestra plays some 180 concerts a year, most of them in Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center -- and Mr. Mehta attends very nearly all of them. Last December 18, the Orchestra gave its 14,000th concert -- a milestone unmatched by any other orchestra in the world. Mr. Mehta also points out that from its first tour in 1882, through the 2004-05 season, the Orchestra will have performed in 416 cities in 57 countries on five continents.

"Of course, touring, which is good for the Philharmonic's image and branding, means more fundraising," Mr. Mehta said. "But I found out long ago that I was good at raising money. The secret to fundraising is developing a personal network. You've got to know people, and they need to trust you."

Trust is something that Mr. Mehta has elicited from people since he left Bombay in 1954 to study accounting in England. It was a time when students of Indian origin weren't especially seen by Britons as worthy of apartment tenancy; Mr. Mehta helped out several fellow Indians in their predicament. After qualifying as a chartered accountant, he moved to Canada to join the international accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand. While a partner with the firm, he joined the Montreal Symphony Orchestra Board of Directors, and later was appointed managing director.

"I was entirely in love with music from my childhood, but in Montreal I found out that I could also sell the concept of supporting music to potential donors," Mr. Mehta said. "I knew these CEO types when I was an accountant. So by the time I joined the Montreal Symphony's board, there was a wide element of trust among us."

He was able to parlay that trust into strengthening the Montreal Symphony's revenue. He also increased its subscription base. He was widely perceived to have transformed it into one of the world's great symphonic ensembles.

When the reporter recalled that the Canadian government named Mr. Mehta a Member of the Order of Canada for his contributions to the orchestra and to Montreal's cultural life, he gave an intriguing response.

"Part of my record in Montreal had to do with the effort I made about understanding the local culture," he said. "Two of Montreal's four TV channels were in French. Some 80% of my staff was primarily French-speaking. And what did I speak? Well, I spoke English, and I spoke my native Gujarati. So I went out and studied French intensively. That way I could be part of the very culture whose music I was managing."

A key part of his management style then -- and also now at the New York Philharmonic, which he joined in 2000 after a decade as president and CEO of the Ravinia Festival, a multi-disciplinary summer music festival where the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has performed annually since 1936. -- was being able to identify the right donors.

"You need to be very precise about your targets in fundraising," Mr. Mehta said. "Success often lies in going to the right person at the right time with the right project. And success also lies in working well with your board -- the Philharmonic has 45 highly accomplished board members, led by chairman Paul Guenther [the former president of the Paine Webber Group] -- and your development staff, of whom I have 18. But, ultimately, you have to really love music in this job. You have to be able to convey your passion to those who you need to persuade to be generous toward your organization.

"In my case, of course, it also helps that I have history on my side," Mr. Mehta said, with his gentle trademark smile.

Some history. Daily, he said, he's surrounded by spirits and memories of the Philharmonic's past musical directors, who include Willem Mengelberg (who made the Philharmonic's first recording in 1922); Gustav Mahler; Arturo Toscanini; Sir John Barbirolli; Bruno Walter; Dimitri Mitropoulos; Leonard Bernstein; Pierre Boulez; and Kurt Masur.

And there's another celebrated conductor whose contributions to the Philharmonic are very much a part of the Philharmonic that Mr. Mehta manages -- his own older brother, the flamboyant Zubin, who was musical director from 1978 to 1991, and became especially known for his interpretations of neo-Romantics such as Anton Bruckner, Richard Strauss and Gustave Mahler.

When Zubin Mehta's successor Kurt Masur left in 2002 it was Zarin Mehta's particular mission to find a conductor who could work cordially and constructively with the orchestra.

"One of my proudest accomplishments was to bring Lorin Maazel to the Philharmonic in 2002," Mr. Mehta said. "One of my central tasks how best to use the musicians and their creativity. How I raise the funds to support them isn't their problem -- that's my responsibility. How to generate the best artistic advantage for the Philharmonic is also my responsibility."

"That's where my experience in Montreal and Ravinia comes in handy," Mr. Mehta said. "I still remember my father running the Bombay Symphony out of our living room. You could say that music is in my blood. But it's your resume that really helps when you're in management. You've got to know how to run a tight ship. I don't waste money."

"But you've also got to know how to deal with people effectively," he added. "I'm basically an open, friendly and ethical person. I don't make enemies. I make a special effort to cultivate our musicians. The days of 'Shut up and play,' are over. Am I doing a good job by them? That's my measure."

Another measure is also going to be how Mr. Mehta handles the relocation of the Philharmonic whenever the proposed $300 million renovation of Avery Fisher Hall starts. Talks with Carnegie Hall fell through, mostly over the question of performance dates, Mr. Mehta said. Now the idea could be to have the Philharmonic play at four or five different venues during the two-year rebuilding of Avery Fisher.

"Am I confident that things will work out? Of course," Mr. Mehta said. "I don't like to fail at what I do. Besides, I'm in this for the long run. I'm not planning to retire. I'm 66, but I intend to keep going."

The reporter thought: Maybe it was all the mouth-burning chili sauce that Mr. Mehta consumed over lunch that gave him not just fuel but fillip for his ambition. But then again, he has that sparkling resume.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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