Conductor Zubin Mehta hopes to have an Arab-Israeli in his Israel Philharmonic within 10 years, but he's in no hurry to program Wagner again in Israel.
The last time he did that, in 1981, some musicians were excused from playing an encore from the stridently anti-semitic German's Tristan und Isolde, and members of the audience loudly protested.
There's no Wagner, but lots of Mahler and Beethoven, on tap this month as the Indian-born Mehta, who is the same age as the orchestra he has directed for almost 40 years, leads the Israel Philharmonic on a triumphal 70th-anniversary tour of Europe.
Reuters spoke to him by telephone in Los Angeles as he was making last-minute preparations to fly to Salzburg for the first concert next Wednesday.
Q: What is the significance of this tour, for the orchestra, and for you?
A: The orchestra has been as closely bound to their nation as any orchestra anywhere. When Ben Gurion declared the state of Israel (in 1948) there was a quartet of the Israel Philharmonic playing. ...There has not been a single war where they did not play not one but two concerts a day.
Q: And for you?
A: In 2009 I'll be music director for 40 years. My own musical personality has evolved there...and it's a wonderful, positive process that takes place. This now for 40 years with two generations of musicians I've conducted there. It's a quite unique situation and I wouldn't exchange it with anyone.
Q: Has the orchestra reached out to the Arab community?
A: I have a music school at the Tel Aviv University...and there we are now reaching out to little Arab towns in Israel -- I don't talk about the West Bank...And then my dream is in about let's say 10 years to have the first Arab-Israeli in the orchestra. It's a slow process. It will take time.
Q: But doesn't Daniel Barenboim already have Arabs and Israelis in his Divan orchestra?
A: He brings Arabs and Israelis together for an orchestral seminar in the summer...They can then go and audition for any orchestra but at the moment I don't think his Syrian musicians will audition for the Israel Philharmonic. On this tour we are taking an Arab-Israeli as a piano soloist with us, Saleem Aboud-Ashkar. When he plays with us in Tel Aviv, in Jerusalem he gets a standing ovation.
Q: And the Wagner, when do you attempt that again?
A: We have to have patience with that. There's still an emotional issue...there are still too many people with numbers on their arms.
Q: Your friend Luciano Pavarotti, with whom you recorded the hugely popular Three Tenors concerts, has been diagnosed with cancer and recently was back in hospital. How is he?
A: I visited him twice last month when I was in Florence. We spent wonderful hours together. He's in good spirits, he's even teaching at home. But no, he's not touring, he's not singing professionally. He wants to in the future, he told me. I said any time you want just come and I'll be there.