When his older brother started to study piano, Neeraj Mehta insisted on taking lessons and playing music too.
So at age 4, Mehta plunked out his first tunes on his family’s organ. He’d pick out tunes from the radio or the Bollywood songs his father played on the tape deck. In fifth grade, his band teacher recruited him for percussion, which he’s pursued since.
His career took him to Casper for two years, where he played principal percussion for the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra while teaching at Casper College. After traveling and teaching across the globe, Mehta now lives in New York City where he performs and teaches at Queensborogh Community College.
He returns to take center stage as a guest soloist for Tomas Svoboda’s Concerto for Marimba. He looks forward to working with conductor Matthew Savery and other friends in the symphony once again.
“For me at least it’s exciting to play with people that I feel like I have a relationship with musically and great memories of being in Casper,” he said.
The conductor wanted the symphony to perform the marimba piece he loves, so he called Mehta, who’s a world class musician, Savery said.
“He’s a completely solid musician in every possible way — some musicians have certain strengths and weaknesses — but he’s got it all,” Savery said. “It was just 100 percent every time he played and just totally solid. He was a great leader of the section and people really responded well to him. But he was destined for greatness, and we knew we weren’t going to have him in Casper for very long; he was going to move on.”
The concert also features the symphony in John Williams’s Main Theme from the “Star Wars” films and Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” one of the monumental works of the 10th century, Savery said.
Svoboda’s marimba concerto ranges from a large orchestra sound to spotlighting “the full tone of the marimba, and the warmth of the bars of the wood,” Mehta said. The first recording of the piece was nominated for a Grammy the year it was released, he added.
“It’s got beautiful melodies, beautiful harmonies and heroic moments, deep quiet moments, exciting rhythmic moments,” he said. “I think there’s a lot there everyone is going to enjoy. Whether they are into contemporary music or maybe have never heard a contemporary piece before, I think there’s something for everyone in this piece and I think there’s a lot for anyone who’s listening to it to discover.”
The instrument also offers a treat for the eyes.
“It’s a nine foot instrument, and I’ve got four implements each 16 inches long,” he said. “So it’s unique, it’s different from a piano where depending on where you’re sitting you can’t even see their hands on stage.”
Mehta has a passion for new solo and contemporary chamber orchestra works and is excited to perform the piece he believes will appeal to even the most traditional and classical tastes. Contemporary composers often spotlight percussion, which offers a vast range of sounds, he said. In past centuries, the violin and piano were considered the mainstay of solo instruments.
“Today, percussion is what the violin used to be the 18th and 19th centuries,” he said.
One of the things he likes best about contemporary percussion music is bringing collections of sounds from around the world and different walks of life, he said.
In 2008 he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study the contemporary scene in Copenhagen, Denmark, he said. While there, he premiered a piece by famous Danish composer Per Nørgård, according to his website. In 2014 he traveled to perform and teach in Thailand and India as one half of the percussion duo Percunova with Jonathan Ovalle of the University of Michigan.
Since leaving Casper, Mehta spent a year as a visiting professor at University of North Carolina – Greensborough before moving to New York City.
New York has given him opportunities to work with some great musicians based there, including performing and recording with jazz saxophone player Steve Coleman, Mehta said.
Mehta has performed and given clinics and master classes through North America and Europe as well as performed and recorded with numerous artists and ensembles, according to his website. He’s worked with many internationally recognized contemporary composers, including Bright Sheng, Michael Daugherty and Virgil Moorefield.
He regularly performs jazz and Latin percussion, while his regional symphony appearances have included the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, according to his website.
Mehta hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and finished his master’s and doctorate degrees at University of Michigan. Mehta knew he wanted to pursue a music career since playing in the Milwaukee Symphony Youth Orchestra. He went on to study classical music at the University of Wisconsin, where he discovered other musical traditions featuring percussion music, particularly Afro-Cuban music, he said. A grant he received as a 2007-2008 graduate fellow of the University of Michigan Center for World Performance Studies allowed him to study African music in Cuba.
“Luckily being at the right time and the right place and meeting great musical people and great mentors wherever I studied just sort of paved the path for me to where I am now,” he said.