Salzburg Journal, Part IV

The Mirabell gardens and palace


Editor’s Note: Our senior editor Jay Nordlinger spent the middle two weeks of August at the Salzburg Festival: hosting a public-interview series, giving a lecture, and covering performances. The music coverage will appear in forthcoming issues of National Review and The New Criterion. For the previous parts of this journal, go here, here, and here. It concludes today.

Everyone loves the Mirabell gardens, hard by — soft by? — the Mirabell Palace. At almost every hour of the day, there are dozens or hundreds of tourists, enchanted. But don’t look too closely: The grass portions of the gardens are pretty shabby. I had never noticed that before, in years of visiting. (My usual residence is a block or two from these gardens.)

(Mozart’s residence was even closer.)

Through the gardens, one day, comes a group of young Americans — I think they’re Americans. They’re singing “Do-Re-Mi,” robustly. It is 7 percent annoying and 93 percent charming. (My calculation is not scientific.)

Across the river, at the university, I have been conducting interviews — public Q&As — for the Salzburg Festival Society. Our fourth guest is the soprano Laura Aikin. She’s from Buffalo, but she has spent much of her career here in Europe. She’s a smart cookie, and a wonderful singer. She is particularly known for her Lulu (i.e., her portrayal of the title character in that opera by Berg).

She says something interesting — well, many things that are interesting, but I have one thing in mind: When American singers get together, they’re apt to say, “So, what was your musical?” In other words, “What was the musical you sang in in high school?” Aikin was in, among other shows, Carnival! She sings a bit of a song from it.

She also demonstrates how to work on a trill: Start slowly, and speed up.

Toward the end of our session, I ask a question I have asked many singers: Can anyone sing? If you can talk, can you sing? Or are there some people who just can’t sing? She says that, in one sense, everyone can sing. But, let’s face it: There are some who seem unable to distinguish one note from another.

She does an impression of a child who can’t quite manage “Happy Birthday.” It all comes out on basically one note. Hilarious.

Have you known anyone like that? I have (no names).

The festival stages Rienzi, the early Wagner opera. Actually, “stages” may not be the right word: It is a concert performance, without costumes and the like. Singing a minor role is a Chicago-born bass-baritone I have never heard of: Robert Bork. In a review I write, I say that he sang “judiciously.”

(By the way, there was a great soprano — a German — named Inge Borkh.)

This is something different from home — different from New York, that is: Some of the taxi drivers are smartly dressed women. Have never quite gotten used to that. Still seems . . . wrong, in a good way. (Strange sentence, but I know what I mean.)

Bear with me here: I want to make a point about expectations. Sometimes, you expect something to be good, you want it to be good — you need it to be good. You convince yourself that it is, regardless.

This year, the music world is celebrating the bicentennial of Verdi. (Also of Wagner.) One night, the Verdi Requiem is performed at the Grosses Festspielhaus here in Salzburg. The Vienna Philharmonic is led by Riccardo Muti, the most acclaimed Verdi conductor in the world. There is a quartet of famous soloists (well, three of them are famous). The stage is set for a great and memorable performance.

And for most in the audience, it had better be: They have paid a lot. They have paid a lot for their tickets, and they may have traveled from continents away.

At the end of the Requiem, they clap and clap. I turn to some friends sitting behind me, and say in some disgust, “How long would they clap for a good performance?”

Now, here’s where I’d like you to bear with me: A day or two later, at an open-air market, I see the most marvelous display of gingerbread men. Salzburg is famous for gingerbread, and so is Austria generally, I think. I pick out the best-looking gingerbread man. I bite into it, prepared for heaven.

And it’s no good. Stale. Tasteless. But: I can see how I might will it good. I can see how I might convince myself, dishonestly, that it’s good. Fortunately, honesty kicks in. It’s no good, even if it’s supposed to be.

The expectations game is so important in music, and in other areas of life.