Salzburg Journal, Part III

Christoph Eschenbach


Editor’s Note: Jay Nordlinger spent approximately the middle two weeks of August doing his annual jobs at the Salzburg Festival in Austria. He hosts a public-interview series for the Salzburg Festival Society. He occasionally lectures. And he writes criticism for publications back home. Criticism appears in the current National Review and will appear in the forthcoming New Criterion. Additionally, four reviews have appeared at The New Criterion’s website: here, here, here, and here. The present journal is for non-musical dribs and drabs, although they sometimes touch on music. For Parts I and II, go here and here.

In a café, I’m talking to friends about “the overamplification of American life.” Everything is too loud, the volume is turned way too high. At wedding receptions, in restaurants, on Broadway, at ballgames, etc.

(I did a series on this, here and here.)

And then we hear a dog not barking: There is no music being pumped out here at the Café Niemetz. There is nothing but the sound of friendly conversation and the clinks of forks and plates and so on. Pretty nice.

Illegal in America?

Barbara Bonney, the American soprano, lives here in Salzburg. As I’ve mentioned in columns before, she has reason to believe she’s related to Billy the Kid, a.k.a. William H. Bonney. In the mid-’90s, André Previn composed a piece for her: Sallie Chisum Remembers Billy the Kid. (Sallie was one of the outlaw’s women.)

Anyway, the soprano owns a dress shop here in Salzburg. It’s called Bonney & Kleid. (“Kleid” is the German word for “dress.”)

A young friend of mine shows me a video of her sister, singing in a school performance. The sister is about 16, I think. She’s singing “How beautiful are the feet” from Messiah.

I remark to my friend, “I’m not sure you could do that in an American public school.” My friend, startled, says, “Why?” I say, “Because it’s a religious song, or aria.” My friend says, “That’s really strange. Here in Austria, you can sing whatever you want. In this school performance, what each student sang was up to the student.”

I agree with her: The (new) American way is “really strange,” or can be.

I meet an older woman of indeterminate nationality. She tells me she lived for 25 years in America, but now lives in Austria. I cannot place her accent. It’s not German. I say to her, “Where did you grow up?”

“Brazil!” she says. So her first language is Portuguese. Sort of.

She explains, “My parents were from Latvia. They fled Communism in the 1920s. They went to Brazil. I met my husband there, an Austrian. We lived in Austria and the U.S.”

So, her languages are Latvian, Portuguese, English, and German. “And I’ve never been truly comfortable in any of those languages,” she says. “I don’t really have a home language.”

I have a friend who grew up in Geneva — French-speaking Switzerland. Her father was German-speaking, and she spoke German to him. Her mother was English, and she spoke English to her. In America, people have said to my friend, “You’re so lucky, to have been born into those three languages!”

She herself doesn’t feel that way. I know, because she has confided in me. She does not feel truly at home in any of those languages. She feels she lacks a base.

Anyway, the point of this note was not supposed to be a language one: It was supposed to be the dislocation of life, the dislocation of so many lives (by Communism, for instance).

August 15 is Mariä Himmelfahrt (Assumption of Mary Day). The bells ring non-stop. They peal and peal.

And I can’t help cracking myself up: “A fahrtin’ horse never tires.”

Sorry . . .

The third guest in our Salzburg Festival Society series is Christoph Eschenbach, the renowned conductor — and pianist. He has held posts in many cities: Zurich, Houston, Hamburg, Chicago, Paris, Philadelphia, Washington. He is now in our nation’s capital, as the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, and the Kennedy Center at large.

He did not have the most auspicious of beginnings in life. How was your childhood? Any complaints?

Eschenbach was born in Breslau in February 1940 (about six months into the war). I will now quote Wikipedia: “His mother died giving birth to him; his father, a politically active anti-Nazi, was sent to the Eastern front as part of a Nazi punishment battalion where he was killed. As a result of this trauma, Eschenbach did not speak for a year, until he was asked if he wanted to play music.”

In 1946, he was adopted by a cousin of his mother’s, whose married name was Eschenbach.

I begin our session by asking Eschenbach whether he has gone to the piano this morning. Is he like Casals, who liked to begin his day with Bach on the keyboard?