Mehta prepares for his farewell performance, by Jamie Lafreniere

Every new year brings changes, and in 2006 the Marquette Symphony Orchestra bids a fond farewell to long time conductor and music director Nuvi Mehta.

“It is no exaggeration to say the audience loves Nuvi—his musicianship, his personality, his wit, his verve,” said Ed Quinnell, president of the Marquette Symphony Board of Trustees. Mehta’s final performance is coming up this month.
Marquette’s friendship with Mehta began in the fall of 2000, when he guest conducted the sold-out Pops concert, “That’s Entertainment.” He remembers it as a good program to begin with.
“[It had] musical selections that allowed the orchestra to come together rather quickly so we were able to feel comfortable despite its being the first concert,” Mehta said. “This was my first look at the orchestra and the orchestra’s first look at me.”
First impressions tend to last, and Mehta’s energy and charm made him an instant crowd favorite. He returned in November for “Music that Tells Stories,” a theme for his future work in the area. Mehta’s ability to take the audience on a musical journey is what continues to make him popular with enthusiasts and novices alike. Quinnell said he admires Mehta’s expertise.
“His musical knowledge is matched by his overall ability to relate the music and composers to historical, political and social events,” Quinnell said.
Anyone attending one of Mehta’s performances with the Marquette Symphony Orchestra can attest to his proficiency in all things musical. He takes time between selections to explain the creative process of the composer, the implications to prior and future works by the artist and the difficulties in conveying appropriate emotions through notes on a page. With casual humor and a natural sense of timing, he can take an audience into the piece, pointing out small nuances that are easy to overlook by those who are not professional musicians.
Born into a family of professional musicians, Mehta carries on his family tradition as he is a cousin once-removed of the world renowned conductor Zubin Mehta. His father is the talented pianist Dady Mehta, who performed a father/son concert with Nuvi at Marquette’s St. Peter Cathedral a few years ago.
Mehta’s parents met in Vienna (Austria), where both were music students. His mother focused on vocal training and his father was drawn to the piano, a gift which he tried to pass on to young Navroj—his full name, although he prefers the nickname Nuvi.
“We heard great music in the house for hours every day,” he said. “More than that even, we learned something about what works in music.”
Though Mehta showed instinctive talent at only five years old, he was a bit intimidated by his father’s rigorous six hours of rehearsal each day.
A year later, Mehta picked up the violin, which he chose for its rich repertoire.
“It was the logical choice to try that instrument to see if I took to it more than the piano, which I did,” he said.
The violin gave him the chance to express himself individually, and set him apart from his talented father. Some lucky Marquette residents have seen Mehta play both at Kaufman Auditorium and St. Peter Cathedral. He captures his listeners’ attention by varying between a natural calm that makes the music seem effortless and a spirited flight, fueled by boundless energy.
Mehta cultivated these skills at the University of Indiana, where he studied under Josef Gingold, and eventually moved on to Juilliard. This is where his conducting lessons began with Otto Werner Mueller, who Mehta remembers as a great interpreter and teacher.
“Conducting opened a door onto a deeper analysis of music,” he said. “He taught me to see new things in a Beethoven or Tchaikovsky symphony score.”
But, while Mueller and Juilliard were influential, Mehta attributes much of his education to his time in New York.
“It was a revelation to me,” he said. “In New York, I heard great artists from around the world performing every week. I had a lot of good friends at Julliard and had new and great teachers, but it was New York that exposed me to a lot of great performances.”
Another crucial part of his musical education was his time at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute.
“Those summers were memorable: a free-flowing exchange of ideas, wide-open forays into different kinds of music making, the freedom to experiment, and the comfort of being surrounded by friends and nurturing mentors,” he said.
It was there that Mehta first came in contact with Michael Tilson Thomas, who would work with him on the New World Symphony.
“When they started auditioning around the country to put together the New World Symphony for its first season, one of their last stops was Juilliard,” he said. “It was like a reunion for us. I auditioned and they engaged me as concertmaster.”
And as every artist knows, true growth begins with immersion in your craft.
“In addition to playing many concertmaster solos, I also had the opportunity to play concerti, and we formed a string quartet of the principals in the orchestra,” Mehta said. “So it was round-the-clock rehearsals and performances—quite exhausting at times.”
Always looking to broaden his musical horizons, Mehta has guest-conducted in many venues around the United States; so many it is hard for him to choose a favorite.
“It is true that some venues are better than others for acoustics, atmosphere, etc., but much of my personal feelings about a place are tied up with the musicians with whom I’m working, the audience for whom we play, the guest artists and the repertoire,” he said. “In short, it is the whole experience.”
This holds true for Marquette as well.
“Several performances are my fondest memories of working in Marquette,” Mehta said. “But that’s just working. Undoubtedly, what I’ll have enjoyed the most has been Marquette itself and the people whom I have met. The enjoyment I derive from traveling to Marquette has less to do with the music we have made than with the people I have come to know.”
But Mehta does have a few concert halls which stand out as favorites, and he hopes to return to them soon.
“Certainly Copley Symphony Hall in San Diego is a wonderful venue, though perhaps too forgiving,” Mehta said. “The performing Arts Center in Orange County is wonderful too. There is an orchestra I helped put together in Ventura that performs twice a year for an audience very excited about music, and though the acoustic is average, these are some of my favorite concerts.”
He also is a frequent conductor overseas.
“My favorite feature of many concert halls in Europe is their intimate nature, which I also appreciate about Kaufman,” he said. “No matter where you sit, you can see and hear intimately what is happening on stage. Of course like most intimate, older halls, it can get warm at times.”
His current home is with the San Diego Symphony as a violinist, and periodic guest conductor. But his most exciting work on the west coast is with the San Diego Chamber Orchestra and their outreach program. Here he puts his innate teaching ability to good use and has written several programs for small groups of musicians to educate third, fourth and fifth graders about such things as melody, harmony and rhythm.
“They include live performance, Power Point presentations about how music is put together, stories from the lives of composers who changed those elements into music, and an introduction to the orchestra,” Mehta said.
Educating listeners is a gift he gives audiences everywhere he performs.
“Mr. Mehta has been an incredible audience conductor,” said Dan Arnold, vice president of the Marquette Symphony Orchestra’s Board of Trustees. “His explanations of the music and its background have been very popular with our attendees and will be greatly missed.”
Mehta has included speakers, dancers and Power Point presentations into the accompanying imagery of music. This multi-media approach helps guide the audience to better understanding of the composer’s intentions.
This ongoing education has become one of his passions in conducting.
“I feel proud of having been able to bring more musical awareness into the town and help develop the audience for the Marquette Symphony Orchestra,” Mehta said. “The wonders of music that I see when I study a score are wonders I love to share with people. I’ve always felt that the inside scoop of what is in a piece of music can help people gain a deeper love for these great works. I have been able to share some of this with people in Marquette, and it has been my privilege to do so.”
Quinnell agrees that Mehta brings a very complete approach to conducting.
“All of these attributes have led to a heightened appreciation of orchestral music in our Upper Peninsula communities, as demonstrated by participation from those communities both as musicians and as members of our ever-increasing audience,” Mehta said.
Season ticket sales have continued to increase in the past few years, a success which has its roots in Mehta’s wide range of musical offerings and easy banter with the audience. Mehta attributes such success to two sources.
“Well, the orchestra has developed a great deal,” he said. “Some sections of the orchestra are very strong, and the whole level of the orchestra has risen. The strongest asset of the orchestra, however, and I would say of any orchestra, is its audience. The Marquette Symphony is blessed with a wonderful audience, which loves music and which is growing all the time. This is the asset that the orchestra must continue to cultivate as it continues to improve. Improvement and audience cultivation go hand in hand.”
Mehta has been listed as the Marquette Symphony Orchestra’s music director since October 2001, and has worked hard to achieve such cultivation with his musicians as well, giving the Marquette Symphony Orchestra a sound of its own.
“An accomplishment that any conductor feels having spent time with an orchestra is the development of a voice for the orchestra,” he said. “This is always the result of a particular style of music making, a particular way of focusing the phrases of music, that’s developed in an orchestra with a music director. I feel the orchestra is at a level that it can do many things that might have seemed daunting five years ago.”
One of the things he’s had to overcome while working here is the fast turnaround of musicians.
“It has not always been easy to fill the orchestra, and additions are still necessary in some sections,” Mehta said.
But he has seen this before.
“It is a constant struggle of every orchestra: to raise money, to pay principles and section leaders, and to recruit good musicians,” he said. “There is no orchestra that feels 100-percent satisfied that it is able to do those three things to the degree it would wish.”
Add to that list the search for a new music director. Arnold, who will lead the orchestra’s artistic advisory committee in the hunt, is well aware of the task at hand.
“Nuvi’s talent (with the audience) will certainly be a high priority in any search for a new conductor,” Arnold said.
It will be crucial to find someone the audience responds to as well.
Fans can look forward to seeing many new faces and styles in next season’s line-up as the orchestra works with impressive applicants from around the country to bring the Marquette Symphony into its tenth season.
There are many plans ahead, and the new conductor will be selected on his ability to help attain these goals.
“I think the Marquette Symphony is in a wonderful position to take a step forward,” Mehta said. “There is community support. The orchestra has come a long way. Adding some players to the orchestra will be very important right at this moment, and finding a conductor who continues to educate the public and bring more audience on board could be very important to that next step. It’s not a very big step to take. Every orchestra improves incrementally from its inception.”
Mehta’s final performance will be at 7:30 p.m. on February 25 at Kaufman Auditorium. The audience will be treated to Beethoven’s Concerto for Piano No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58 with a special piano solo by Dady Mehta. Rounding out this concert will be the Serenade for Strings by Dvorak and Borodin’s Polovetsian Dance No. 17 from Prince Igor.
After the concert, Mehta is heading back to San Diego for a February concert series. But that’s only the beginning of his busy spring.
“I have two performances with the San Diego Chamber Orchestra in March, featuring the winner of the Cleveland International piano competition,” he said. “The Ventura Music Festival gets up and cracking shortly thereafter, with a lineup of celebrities during the first two weeks in May. Branford Marsalis, Manuela bar Waco and many others will be joining us. Jennifer Cole joins us as a soloist with the Festival Orchestra.”
But as the Marquette audience and orchestra musicians prepare to say goodbye to Mehta, Quinnell remains hopeful for future collaboration.
“The upcoming concert will be his last regularly-scheduled appearance,” Quinnell said. “But there will be room for guest conductors for future concerts, and I am hopeful that Nuvi will be back to join us and lead us again.”
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