It all started a few Saturdays ago, as I hauled my Suburban butt all the way downtown, early in the morning, to join the South Mumbai milieu in a preordained futile exercise of obtaining tickets for the Parsi spectacle of the year. Strictly speaking Zubin Mehta does not restrict his music for ears which belong to followers of the Zoroastrian faith, but when “aapro” (“ours” in Gujarati) Zubin returns to his city of birth, his kith and kin and their Parsi neighbours flock to pay homage to arguably the greatest living conductor of western classical music. I had never seen him live, only listened to his performances on CD… so I was excited and afraid that I might turn back disappointed, as there was a large queue in front of me.

Dee and I reached the ticket counter when there were just 5 remaining in the category we could afford – and we were jumping with joy, holding up tickets for A-5,6, stage right, front row for a performance that promised to be – hazarding a term not typically used to describe western classical performances – mind blowing. Zubin Mehta was conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (one of the oldest and most respected) and would be accompanied on the piano by Lang Lang – the 26 year old sensation who has made classical music “sexy” and “cool”.

But this bristling excitement slowly turned to simmering anger, as we got stuck 15 min away from the Venue on D-day. The extra security put in place (not for the artists, but for the VIP guests) had created a bad traffic jam. We reached the venue just in time, to realize that parking was full. Being the only one with a license valid in Mumbai, I volunteered to park the car and sent Dee in. By the time I returned, Zubin and his Viennese musicians had blazed through the Overture from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” – one of my favorite pieces. I put the loss behind me and settled in my seat next to Dee, right in the front row, just in time to see Lang Lang’s boyish face and lithe frame walking towards the polished Steinway. “Let’s see what the hype is about!” I thought to myself as they launched into Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 – a piece written by Chopin when he was merely 20.

Being stage right, we were facing the back of the piano, and could see Lang Lang’s head throwing itself back and forth in unbridled passion and intensity, as his fingers danced on the ebony and ivory as if they were 20 and not 10. With Mr.Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic providing magnificent harmony, Lang Lang’s interpretation of Chopin was exuberant, even dangerous. Sure enough, the audience thought he deserved the hype, and at the end of the performance, the entire hall stood up and congratulated the little maestro on his genius. It was some experience watching a young genius rendering another young genius’ work immortal…

After the longish interval (when I realized that we were rubbing shoulders with Mumbai’s who’s who…Aamir Khan, Shobha De, Anil Dharker et al) Dee and I settled down for the part of the evening, I had gone through so much trouble for. Zubin Mehta was about to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra through all four movements of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. Now, the 7th does not have the celebrity of the 5th or the 6th. Nor does it have the grandeur and historical significance of the 9th. But as a classical piece it stands head and shoulders above the rest in its spirit, complexity, vision and sheer spread of instruments. In fact, Beethoven on multiple occasions alluded to the 7th being his favorite work.

So here was one of the greatest musical ensembles in the world with two violin sections, violas, heartbreaking cellos, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani… and did I mention I was there? In person? Mr. Mehta was magnificent. The way he directed every part of the orchestra with precision, and attention to detail, coaxing his musicians to squeeze every drop from their reservoir of musical talent until it became musical genius… his smiles, frowns, frantic waves of the magical wand – just watching him in action was worth 10 times the price of the ticket. And how was the orchestra? The complexity, frequent changes in tone and tempo of Beethoven’s 7th would be a challenge for any orchestra to perform to perfection. The Vienna Philharmonic just breezed through it as if they were doing this in their sleep. The timing was exquisite, their coordination perfect. And Dee and I, sitting up close and personal, were nothing short of mesmerized. And so was rest of the crowd. When they finally completed their furious rendition of the fourth and final movement – the standing ovation was spontaneous. Mr. Mehta, now well past his 70s had enthralled an audience, who had come with sky high expectations and yeah, the Parsis in the crowd were probably awash with tears of joy. He truly is a great contribution to the world by India…

Mr. Mehta left the stage amongst the applause, but returned with a beguiling smile and announced to the breathless audience that they were about to be regaled with Strauss’ Emperor Waltz. This evening was turning out to be unforgettable, even more so, when he followed that up with Strauss’ “Tritsch-Trasch Polka” – another audience favorite.

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent” said Victor Hugo. Though I have attempted to use words to describe the experience, I still cannot describe the music. Let me just say that it was magical to be in the presence of true genius. I sincerely hope that Mr. Mehta decides to visit Mumbai again…

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