Impromptus

Salzburg Journal, Part IV

by Jay Nordlinger

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.

Our fifth and final guest in the Salzburg Festival Society series is a famed tenor: Ian Bostridge, of England. There is probably no lieder singer more admired. He’s an intellectual too, a bona fide scholar: a historian who earned his doctorate at Oxford.

Bostridge studied at both Oxford and Cambridge, in his academic career. I’m reminded of a wonderful old line: “Britain’s universities — both of them!”

The Bostridges have two children, who are absolutely to eat, as my grandmother would say. A boy and a girl. Is there anything more melting than an English child? One who sticks out his hand, or her hand, and says, “Pleased to meet you”?

I love my country, heaven knows, but sometimes the criticism of us is right: We can be boors. (And yes, I know about Manchester or Birmingham on a Friday or Saturday night. I’ve read my share of Tony Daniels — please.)

Anyway, Bostridge discourses brilliantly to us about music. He thinks and talks as well as he sings. (And thinking is an element of singing, of course.) I’ve said it before in this journal, I’ll say it again: I wish I had a tape for you.

With two Austrian friends, I arrive 15 minutes early for an appointment. We’re to meet a man, to interview him. I figure we’ll loiter until the appointed hour, or a few minutes after, and then go in. They say, “No, no, we can go in now.” I say, “Really?” Oh, yes — perfectly normal.

Across cultures, the question of when to arrive — when to knock on the door — is an interesting one. You could write a book, practically.

I see a woman in a shirt that says, “I’m not a model, I just look like one.” Damned if it isn’t true, too.

The ladies with lots of plastic surgery: I’m afraid they look like burn victims. Some of the men aren’t much better. Why have they done this to themselves? Semi-tragic.

On the streets of Salzburg, an oompah band sounds perfectly natural. And their dress — lederhoseny wear — looks perfectly natural.

Singing in Britten’s War Requiem is Anna Netrebko, the Russian soprano. The soprano Britten had in mind for this part was also Russian: Galina Vishnevskaya (wife of Rostropovich).

In a review, I write, “Netrebko was scalding and imperious, rather like her predecessor, Vishnevskaya (than whom no one has ever been more scalding and imperious).”

My beloved, late friend Pat Buckley could be on the scalding and imperious side. She could also be tender and delightful. I know some people who knew both women: Galina and Pat. Those ladies were almost in a class by themselves.

You know, there’s something I should have mentioned, earlier in this journal — when I was writing about our interview with Piotr Beczala, the Polish tenor. Occasionally, I ask singers whether there are any pop singers they like or admire. You know what Beczala said? He said that Christina Aguilera is a very good singer — a natural singer.

I’m going to YouTube her. It must be true.

Sort of funny to see young Austrian men blasting rap music out of their cars. (American rap music, I should say.)

There are lots of ducks, geese, and swans on the Leopoldskron lake. Many a morning, dogs wade in among them. And they don’t bother those birds at all. The birds aren’t bothered by them, and the dogs seem blasé about the birds.

Strange. Not quite the lion lying down with the lamb, but still . . .

You would think that, after umpteen visits, one might grow tired of Salzburg’s beauty — or be indifferent to it. No, in my experience. It’s amazing every time.

And the festival? A friend of mine calls it “a spa for the ears.” Not bad — both the phrase and the festival. Thanks for joining me, y’all, and see you soon.