The call made to his Munich hotel, as agreed, at 10.30 am, is aborted. The receptionist will not transfer the line to Zubin Mehta unless we specify the room number. "There are security concerns," we are told.
The caution has roots in a controversy brewing 4,000 miles away in Kashmir, where he is to perform before 1,500 special invitees at a one of-a-kind concert at Shalimar Bagh, a Mughal garden dating back to the time of Emperor Jahangir.
An SOS to assistant Natalia Ritzkowsky means easy access to the master conductor, who is soon at the other end of the line, hours before he is to board a flight to Delhi, from where he will make his way to Srinagar.
A wish he has held deep within his heart, and expressed on a few occasions, is about to be realised, when on Saturday the 77-year-old performs with the 100-strong Bavarian State Orchestra at the historic garden.
Ehsaas-e-Kashmir, hosted by the German Ambassador in India Michael Steiner with assistance from the Central and Jammu and Kashmir governments, is perhaps the result of an idea Mehta mooted in Delhi a year ago. "I wish one day I could play in Kashmir. I will cancel every appointment to come and do that," he had said at a State reception hosted by the German Embassy.
Ever since Steiner announced the event, Mehta has found himself in a spot, with hard-line Hurriyat Conference leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani calling for a bandh in the Kashmir Valley on Saturday, three militant organisations threatening to target the performance, and local musicians organising a rival concert featuring Kashmiri talent.
Mehta, who we are warned, is keen to discuss everything but Kashmir, is unfazed. "I am really looking forward to it," he says about the evening where he will conduct a composition by Abhay Rustom Sopori—son of Kashmiri music legend Pt. Bhajan Sopori—in addition to compositions by Beethoven, Haydn and Tchaikovsky.
Using music to voice his support comes easily to Mehta, who with legendary pianist Daniel Barenboim has worked at building peace between Israel and Palestine, and as the lifetime director of the Israeli Philharmonic, once performed in Nazareth for an all-Arab audience. He described the standing ovation as "Arabs standing up for a hundred Jews playing on stage".
This trip, of course, brings him to another place he admits is a favourite — Mumbai, the city where he spent his childhood with violinist-conductor father Mehli Mehta and mother Tehmina. At two sold-out concerts here on September 9 and 10, he will conduct the orchestra along with soloists Julian Rachlin (violin) and Midori (violin) at NCPA’s Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. He is hopeful, he says, of the future of his passion in the country. The audience has grown over the years. "In the 1960s," he remembers, "half the hall would be filled with my relatives. Now it isn’t so."
"I’m a pucca Indian. Bombay is my home," says Mehta, who has held on to an Indian passport despite being a "gypsy who lives out of suitcases", flitting between Tel Aviv, Los Angeles and Florence. "I’m here every two years, but the gap is too long. I yearn to be back. It’s not the same when I perform elsewhere."
A trip to Mumbai means he must make a visit to Cuffe Parade, the old neighbourhood where he grew up ("It’s a mess. The village, the promenade I’d walk along, don’t exist anymore"); the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation at Kemps Corner that trains students in western classical, and of course, Parsi friends’ homes. One of the reasons, he laughs, he feels at home in Tel Aviv, is because "everyone speaks and offers their opinion at the same time, just like my Parsi pals do."
His friends, like colleagues who know him well, must believe Mehta will manage music amid conflict with finesse. In 1981, he performed a quiet piece by 19th century German composer Richard Wagner, a favourite of the Nazis, in Tel Aviv, amid protests from the audience. As the music grew louder, the shouting died down.
"Let the music speak for itself," says Mehta, crisply, when we ask if the concert is in trouble. "It will happen, and will be broadcast across 24 European countries. You’ll see it on Doordarshan."