Salzburg Journal, Part III

by Jay Nordlinger

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?

Eschenbach says he hasn’t played the piano in months, and is just getting back into it. “My fingers are like sausages.” But when he returns to the piano, after a long stay away, he begins with Bach — who makes everything right with the world. “It’s like yoga.” You feel a peace.

In fact, he has a Bach score — a Bach keyboard score — with him right now. He’s going to practice after our Q&A. And if you’re going to play, you might as well play “the greatest music ever written,” says Eschenbach, meaning Bach.

Here at the festival, he is conducting Don Giovanni, the Mozart opera. “And there’s the second great one”: Mozart. (Eschenbach is not only a Mozart conductor, he is really one of the most famous Mozart pianists in the world. I believe he has recorded just about the composer’s complete piano oeuvre, which is large.)

What set the course of his life as a conductor was attending a concert conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler when he was eleven. (The eleven-year-old was Eschenbach, needless to say, not Furtwängler!) It was an all-Beethoven program: the Symphony No. 4 and the Symphony No. 5. Even now, Eschenbach can remember every note. And he decided, then and there, that he would be a conductor.

Fine, said his stepmother (as he calls her). But you have to learn to play an orchestral instrument. (He was a student of the piano.) Within a week, he had his first violin and his first violin lesson.

The kid was serious.

One of his mentors, as a conductor, was George Szell, the great Hungarian-born maestro in Cleveland. He could be a real SOB (to put it bluntly) (though I have always revered him). I ask Eschenbach, “Was he nice to you?” There are titters in the audience. Eschenbach says, “Yes — I was one of the happy few.”

In our hour before the audience, I ask him a variety of questions, including, “Could you give us a composer who is underrated? Who is underappreciated and underplayed?” He immediately says Hindemith — Paul Hindemith, the German composer who lived from 1895 to 1963. Hindemith was an especially Bach-revering composer.

I once heard about a woman for whom there were three composers, and three composers only: Bach, Bruckner, and Hindemith. She said you could draw a straight line through those composers.

True. But, as I quipped recently, Bach fathered many composers — and not just literally.

Eschenbach and I talk about pianists, past and present. I know he has been a big supporter of Lang Lang, the young and controversial star. Eschenbach has conducted many a concerto appearance with him. And, here and now, the maestro launches into an epic defense of him. It is truly stirring.

Lang Lang has stupendous technique, says Eschenbach (inarguably), and musicality to match. If people don’t like the faces he makes while playing, so what? He recalls the first time he met him, and heard him: It was at Ravinia, and Lang Lang was 17.

He gave Eschenbach a list of pieces he was prepared to play. They ranged from Haydn to contemporary composers. Eschenbach asked him to begin with a Haydn sonata. He figured he’d listen to a few minutes of it, and then move on.

He had Lang Lang play the whole thing. It was “perfect,” he says. “Great.”

Then he had him play something completely different: an intermezzo from Brahms’s Op. 116. He figured Lang Lang wouldn’t be able to play that so well, because it required a completely different mentality.

But it, too, says Eschenbach, was perfect, great: totally Brahmsian.

“I am pro-Lang Lang,” says Eschenbach. So am I, come to think of it (with qualifications). I’ve written tens of thousands of words on him since he came on the scene. Some of those words have been derisive and condemnatory. Some of them have been rapturous.

That’s what the kid — the aging kid — inspires.

Toward the end of our session, I give Eschenbach the old question: Is classical music dying? A lot of people think so, especially in America. Then again, people have always thought so. Charles Rosen, the pianist-scholar, famously remarked, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest tradition.”

Eschenbach is in the camp of “No way” — no way is classical music dying. “Especially when you think of the East,” says Eschenbach, meaning the Far East. Years ago, Lorin Maazel (another conductor) gave me essentially the same answer. I asked him, “What about the future of music?” The first words out of his mouth were, “Thank God for China.”

After our session, Eschenbach and I talk on for a while. He tells me that Horowitz once played Kreisleriana — all eight movements of it — for him. (This is a Schumann work.) For him alone, chez Horowitz. “How was it?” I ask. Damn good, is the answer.

Had enough for one installment, y’all? Yeah, I agree — see you tomorrow for Part IV. Thanks a ton.

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