Zarin Mehta, President/Executive Director, New York Philharmonic

Zarin Mehta, President/Executive Director, New York Philharmonic

Zarin Mehta has been surrounded by classical music much of his life. His father, Mehli Mehta, was a violinist and founder of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra, while his brother, Zubin Mehta, is a renowned conductor and former New York Philharmonic music director. After a successful business career, Mehta joined the classical music world himself, becoming managing director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in 1981 and then, during the 1990s, serving as president and CEO of Chicago's Ravinia Festival.

Since Mehta took over as executive director of the New York Philharmonic in 2000 (he received the additional title of president in 2004), he has fostered an active commissioning program, launched several lecture and discussion series, and overseen major international tours for the philharmonic. PND recently spoke with Mehta about some of those accomplishments, how the philharmonic is coping with the effects of the recession, and the orchestra's plans for the future.

Philanthropy News Digest: With the recession affecting ticket sales and donations at arts organizations around the country, a number of orchestras have had to scale back or even cancel performances and tours this season. How has the recession affected the philharmonic?

Zarin Mehta: We haven't discussed our current financial position much in the media. We feel our business is to play great music, and we go about that business in a quiet way. Our board and our musicians are very well informed of what's going on.

But we have had experiences relatively recently with declining ticket sales and falling endowment values. About a year after the 9/11 attacks, for example, our endowment income fell significantly, and we had to make up the shortfall in other ways. So, we cut expenses by canceling a tour to Europe in 2003 and replaced it with a Beethoven festival. Our board also negotiated a one-year salary freeze with the orchestra in 2004. In fact, we looked at every aspect of our operation and took a number of steps designed to help us through that rough patch.

Today, things are looking up despite the recession. Alan Gilbert just stepped into the position of music director, and we're gearing up for a full season and tour. We were also successful last year in cutting our expenses and ended up coming in $3 million below our budget. In part, that was because a lot of staff and artists took pay cuts, but it's also the result of all kinds of cost-cutting measures. For instance, to save money on this year's tour we looked at ways we could avoid bringing along extra musicians. So instead of doing a certain Mahler symphony, we'll do another Mahler symphony that doesn't take as many musicians — that sort of thing.

PND: Earlier this year, you received a $10 million gift from Henry Kravis, the investor and financier who has donated millions to the philharmonic over the past few years to support new works and a composer-in-residence position. How much do you rely on longtime donors for funding?

ZM: We rely on both longtime donors and new donors. People move to the city and take new jobs, and we try to get to know them and their companies. New board members have different Rolodexes. You know, cultivating donors is an ongoing process.

Henry and his wife, Marie-Josée, have been friends of ours for a long time. They've been very supportive. When the philharmonic and Alan Gilbert decided to institute the position of composer-in-residence, I thought of them because I knew they were very interested in the commissioning of new music and thought they might be interested in the composer-in-residence concept. So I went to see Henry and talked to him about how it would be nice to endow the chair. We went back and forth and eventually agreed on the concept and a sum. Of course, we couldn't be more thrilled. As I've said to a number of people, this is what America is all about! People like Henry Kravis.

PND: What has the arrival of Alan Gilbert meant for the orchestra?

ZM: In the past, the appointment of a new music director often has had a positive effect on our fundraising, and I think the same thing will happen with Alan. He's already been fantastic about coming to dinners and shaking people's hands. We recently held our annual gala, for instance, and he attended after a long rehearsal followed by a long concert and stayed to greet hundreds of people. That was huge. His ideas, his enthusiasm, his energy — all that's going to be terrific for us. I'm already tired!

PND: Among other things, you've become known for taking the philharmonic to parts of the world rarely visited by Western orchestras — for example, North Korea in early 2008 and Vietnam later this month. How do those trips fit into your overall vision for the orchestra?

ZM: Throughout its history, the New York Philharmonic has been an orchestra that tours regularly, representing this country all over the world. It has done that for decades. For instance, when the Church of Our Lady in Dresden, which had been bombed in World War II, was being restored, the church fathers invited the philharmonic to play the inaugural concert, and we were delighted to do it.

Similarly, when we were approached to do the concert in North Korea, my reaction was that it was something we needed to do. Vietnam, which came up in one of our discussions, was a logical follow-on to that trip. We all thought it would be great to go to Vietnam and show the Vietnamese the goodwill that the people of the United States felt toward them. So I visited with Vietnamese officials a year ago, and they were ecstatic about the idea and eventually invited us to present two concerts. It's wonderful, of course, to play in places like Berlin and London and Tokyo, and we'll continue to do so. But I think it's extremely important to take advantage of opportunities to represent one's country in this way.

PND: What else do you have planned for the future?

ZM: We're thinking of different places to perform and looking at how we can best utilize new media. For instance, we've talked about making our concerts downloadable through platforms like iTunes. We're also commissioning a lot of new music — and not just because of the Kravis gift, but because I think we need to. Indeed, I feel strongly that things like the composer-in-residence program need to be supported by an institution like the New York Philharmonic.

Lauren Kelley