Meenakshi Shedde: No selfie with Zubin

My heart has been soaring this week, ever since I attended the Zubin Mehta concert with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra on April 20, to celebrate his 80th birthday on home ground. This concert featured the more popular arias — “popera” my friend called it — whereas the first two concerts at the NCPA’s Bhabha Theatre featured more classical music. But, I wasn’t in Mumbai then, and returned just in time for the last, open air concert at the Brabourne Stadium. It is absolutely presumptuous to hold a western classical music concert in a cricket stadium — Zubin, or no Zubin — and the fact that there was an excellent turnout — and rather soigne at that — is a sign that Mumbai can be civilised too. OK, let’s admit: the audience was substantially a sea of Parsis. Every Bawa in town had turned up, including extremely senior citizens plodding with walkers, and others in wheelchairs. Overall, it was a good place for Parsi matrimonial prospects: the entire Parsi universe was parked between rows AA and ZZ. Hats off to the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation and its partners for pulling off this massive event, including the 90-piece orchestra, with such well-organised panache.

Andrea Bocelli and Zubin Mehta at a concert celebrating the latter’s 80th birthday. Pic/Suresh Karkera
Andrea Bocelli and Zubin Mehta at a concert celebrating the latter’s 80th birthday. Pic/Suresh Karkera

I was in row XX, sandwiched between an incessantly chattering woman and another who kept texting messages on her mobile phone. No more plebs, I swore, and sidled into an empty seat in the R17,000 seatwallah row, right before the stage: so civilized they were, that nobody minded. At the NCPA, I’d have been booted out immediately.

Dressed in a cool white dagli, Zubin Mehta conducted con brio, rising on tip toes, attacking the air with his baton, closing his eyes to savour delicate cadences. It was wonderful to see someone at 80, so good looking, productive, burning with passion for his art, taking a large team with him. As for the tenor Andrea Bocelli, I’ve long been a fan of this Italian singer-songwriter, who has sold over 80 million records. Although he turned blind at 12, he has turned his strength, his voice, to his advantage. Also good looking, he sang magnificently, infusing his voice with emotion, as he occasionally flicked his grey locks aside. You can see him on youtube, singing, posing with his baby and sexy wife in his grand mansion, swimming and cycling. Maria Katzarava, the Mexican soprano, sang exquisitely. When she took a deep breath, I feared for her plunging, off-shoulder, black costume, which looked like it would spring from its moorings at any moment, and tried to focus on her music instead.

The orchestra played Verdi’s melodramatic La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny), Strauss’ delightful Tritsch Trasch Polka (mimicking Viennese gossiping), and featured solos and duets with Bocelli and Katzarava, including Verdi’s La donna e mobile (Woman is fickle) and Puccini’s Recondita armonia (Strange harmony). When Bocelli and Katzarava sang Puccini’s O soave fanciulla (O Loveliest of Maidens) from La Boheme, they held hands during the high-pitched climax, as if giving each other energy.

I haven’t formally learnt western classical music, but have an ear for it: I learnt western music singing at St Teresa’s Convent, was in the St Xavier’s College choir, and did a stint with Alfred D’Souza’s Stop Gaps Choir. I’m a musical magpie: for instance, I learnt the aria La donna e mobile from a German friend, who entertained me as I helped him wash dishes after a big Christmas party in Wurzburg.

At Zubin’s concert, Bocelli treated us to Nessun dorma (No one shall sleep) as an encore: it was a fitting climax, after which the orchestra played — and the audience sang — happy birthday to Zubin Mehta. Backstage, I shook Zubin Mehta’ hand and told him how much I enjoyed the concert — he graciously thanked me. No, I don’t have a selfie to prove it. When I congratulated another musician, he asked, “Really, there was applause?” Of course, I replied, didn’t you hear it? No, he said. At the NCPA’s indoor theatre, he could hear the applause, but here, I realised, the applause just dissipated into the warm night air.

So, my selfie is a more modest one, with me standing outside two doors backstage, marked ‘Zubin Mehta’ and ‘Andrea Bocelli’, but without either of the stars. If it means being less aggressive, more civilised, giving people one adores quiet space, I’m OK with a selfie that gets few ‘likes’ on Facebook - but that’s me.

Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at meenakshishedde@gmail.com.

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