"I'm a friend of the people and I love the country." That's the reason Zubin Mehta, maestro extraordinaire, gives for coming back to Israel each year since 1961 to conduct the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), including as its Musical Director for Life since 1981.
Mehta was in Israel this past week to conduct the IPO at the newly renovated 'Heichal Hatarbut', a Tel Aviv institution, which has housed the IPO since 1957.
During this time, it has hosted some of the most famous orchestras in the world, including the New York and Berlin Philharmonics, the London Symphony Orchestra and a long list of world renowned conductors, soloists and performers. Yet the Heichal Hatarbut has always been home to the IPO, which Mehta describes as "one of the world's great orchestras."
The IPO itself has a long and rich history, having been founded in 1936 by the great Polish-Jewish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, when it was still called The Palestine Orchestra and before the modern Jewish state was re-established.
At the time, some of the most talented Jewish musicians in the world were forced to flee pre-Nazi Europe, where they were banned from playing in orchestras for no other reason than being Jewish. Many came to what was then still 'British Mandate for Palestine', to play with its nascent philharmonic orchestra. After the Holocaust, a number of survivors also joined the philharmonic.
Once the State of Israel came into being in May 1948, the philharmonic formally changed its name to the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. Since then, the IPO has gone through all the trials of tribulations of the State of Israel, playing in times of war and peace and all the days in between.
During one performance in Jerusalem in 1991, at the time of the Gulf War, legendary violinist Isaac Stern famously kept playing after air sirens started wailing and the audience, fearing the worst, began donning gas masks. Stern however, non-pulsed and with his own mask cast aside, decided to play on and finish his Bach solo. "The gas mask is temporary" he said, "but the music I was playing will go on. That's the only reason one does this."
The Heichal Hatarbut had undergone extensive renovations since August 2011 in order to strengthen the acoustics and improve the audiences viewing and listening experience, at the personal request of Mehta himself.
The renovations cost approximately US$38 million, of which about half was put in by the Tel Aviv Municipality, who managed the process from start to finish. The remainder was provided by donors from Israel and around the world, including a US$10 million donation by American philanthropist Charles Bronfman, in whose honor the new auditorium has been named.
Yasuhisa Toyota, one of the top acoustic experts in the world, who is also responsible for planning famous halls such as the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and Tokyo's Suntory Hall, was the acoustic consultant for the renovation work.
According to Ron Huldai, Mayor of Tel-Yafo: "Heichal Hatarbut is one of the major cultural institutions in Tel Aviv-Yafo and in the State of Israel." Indeed, under his leadership, the City has become a cultural powerhouse, drawing top musicians, artists and performers from around the world, while at the same time opening up Tel Aviv's, and by extension, Israel's, incredibly rich and diverse culture and incredibly talented artists to the rest of the world.
In many ways, Israel's burgeoning cultural scene has become an ambassador for the State of Israel, and the IPO is the crown in that cultural jewel.
According to Mehta, "it's hard to find an emblem of cultural, national pride that burns as bright as Israel's success in classical music." He adds "the amount of culture going on in a small country like Israel is amazing."
Mehta, who is a Parsi Indian from Bombay, first performed in Israel "by chance" in 1961, when at the age of twenty-five, he filled in as a substitute conductor for Eugene Ormandy.
Since then, he has been coming back to conduct in Israel virtually every year. "I've almost grown up here" says Mehta, who despite being 77 years old, is still ever the suave, charming, well-spoken maestro.
Mehta's life story mirrors that of Israel. "This country has gone through a lot of crises, and I've gone through it with them," he says.
Asked what draws him to Israel, Mehta says: "I keep on coming back because the people love music. They need it and that's why I'm here, to do whatever I can."
In as much as Mehta has developed an inseparable love affair with IPO and the people and State of Israel, so too have they embraced him.
In October 2012, Israel's President Shimon Peres bestowed upon Mehta the Presidential Medal of Distinction, one of the nation's highest civilian awards, for his "outstanding contribution to the culture of the State of Israel." Mehta has also been made an honorary citizenship of the City of Tel Aviv-Yafo, though the remainder of the awards and distinctions bestowed upon him in Israel is too numerous to name.
If this week's opening performance of the IPO at the new Charles Bronfman Auditorium is any indication of what lies ahead, the future certainly looks set to shine brightly.
In front of an enthralled capacity crowd of 2,500 people, Mehta was joined on stage with equally legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman, opening with a striking rendition of 'Hatikvah', Israel's national anthem. The concert itself included a modern prelude by Israeli Noam Sherrif, together with Beethoven's Violin Concerto and Mahler's Symphony no.5"
At the conclusion, the IPO, together with Mehta and Perlman, received a rousing 10-minute standing applause from an adoring audience privileged to have witnessed these legendary performers where they belong - back at the Heichal Hatarbut.
The final word perhaps ought to go to Ron Huldai, the Tel Aviv Mayor, who summed it best on the night, when he said: "the IPO has become a symbol for the revival of the Jewish nation. It's a part of our life in every aspect, including in time of war and time of peace and everyday life. This is the Israeli Philharmonic."