"They told me tonight that the orchestra had to leave quickly because of the weather," said the maestro, Zubin Mehta, shortly after he and members of the New York Philharmonic had finished their night's work. "I walked out tonight," he said, looking up at the ceiling of the Indian ambassador's residence. "There were stars in the sky."
Indeed, ominous winds had given way to warm starry skies by the time Mehta and his wife, Nancy, in sari, made their way to the polished halls of the residence on the hill for an after-concert party hosted by Indian ambassador K.R. Narayanan and his wife, Usha.
Talk over drinks for the 40 or so guests was about the Strauss waltzes and polkas played during the concert, sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society. "The maestro said backstage, 'You can't just live with Verdi's "Requiem," ' " related Daniel Boorstin, the librarian of Congress.
Over dinner of Indian cuisine, talk turned to Mehta's attempt to play "Tristan und Isolde" by Wagner -- an anti-Semitic composer whose music Hitler favored -- during an encore by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert in Israel last October.
Although he announced his intentions before the orchestra began, pandemonium ensued in that concert hall and an Israeli minister later suggested that the India-born Mehta go back home.
"I was upset that I hurt people," said Mehta, settling into a chair with a plate of food. "That wasn't my objective . . . We tried a couple of times afterwards to play Wagner as an encore but the opposition was so organized. People get so emotional."
Mehta got criticism here for his choice of music as well. "I got a lot of negative mail in America," said Mehta. "People accused me of not being sensitive."
But Mehta, who shortly after the controversial concert was named musical director of the Israel Philharmonic for life in response to the criticism, said he understands the symbolism of playing Wagner in Israel. "You know, people come to you with numbers on their arms," Mehta said. "It's very difficult to talk to them rationally . . . There are German Jews who remember hearing Siegfried's funeral march during state funerals. They don't want to hear it again. I'm completely sympathetic."
Other guests settled in on the sofa nearby.
"Why did you play it?" asked Boorstin.
"Well, I felt it was high time it was played," said Mehta.
"In Israel, you can't say 'good morning' without a Talmudic discussion," he said. "We expected discussion, but not fights . . . One would think Israelis had enough problems . . . "