Impromptus

Salzburg Journal, Part IV

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. This week’s journal is for non-musical dribs and drabs, although they often touch on music. For Parts I, II, and III, go here, here, and here.

There are a few Jehovah’s Witnesses about. They warmly offer their literature. It takes guts to do what they do — evangelize among strangers on the streets. Sure, such people can be annoying from time to time. But I admire them. How many of us would have the nerve? Or the courage of our convictions?

I have thought the same about Mormons, throughout the world. I remember a pair of cheerful young women who approached me on the streets of Oslo. First they spoke to me in Norwegian. Then, switching to English, they said, “Can we share with you The Book of Mormon today?”

I was rushing, but I wished them well, and I truly meant it. Hell, I would have trouble selling encyclopedias door to door (or whatever the modern equivalent is). I’m sure I couldn’t do it. I might wind up playing ding-dong ditch.

This is a new style to me: A 60-ish man has what I can only call a beard braid: a lone strand sticking out from his chin, with little twiny things around it.

The things people do to themselves, and to those who see . . .

There is a graffito: Heroin, du Idiot. Heroin, you idiot.

Well said.

The fourth guest in our Salzburg Festival Society series is Roberto Abbado, the Italian conductor. He bears a very famous name. And I’m faced with a question: Should I ask him about his uncle? Or leave the issue alone? He has spent his whole life hearing about his uncle, no doubt.

Roberto Abbado is the nephew of Claudio Abbado, one of the most famous musicians of the second half of the 20th century. A conductor, Claudio died earlier this year.

The Abbado family at large is musical. Roberto’s grandfather, Michelangelo, was a violinist and teacher. (There’s a beautiful name for you: Michelangelo Abbado.) Roberto’s father, Marcello, is a composer, pianist, conductor, and teacher.

Unsurprisingly, Roberto is happy to talk about his uncle Claudio. Roberto is a very easygoing and warm man — gemütlich, as they might say in these parts. My impression is, Claudio did not have a great deal to do with Roberto’s musical education and career. But his nephew of course admires him.

I also bring up the matter of Toscanini: No matter whom you’re related to, Toscanini is the great ancestor and model for all Italian conductors, right? Right, says Abbado. For sure.

He goes on to discuss, specifically, the influence of Toscanini on conductors far and wide.

One of Abbado’s teachers was another legend, though little known to the general public: Franco Ferrara. His dates are 1911 to 1985. Last year on our series, we had the Austrian conductor Hans Graf, who was also a Ferrara student. He spoke very movingly of this teacher. So does Abbado.

Ferrara had a strange problem, one that prevented him from having a proper conducting career of his own: When conducting an orchestra, he was in danger of fainting. Sometimes he did. He went to every specialist under the sun. No one could help him.

But he was evidently a great, great teacher. His students speak of him reverently. I wish I had met him, and seen him in action in his studio.

In Salzburg this summer, Abbado is conducting a Donizetti opera, La favorite. It is not one of the more popular Donizetti operas: Those would be, probably, Lucia di Lammermoor, The Elixir of Love, and The Daughter of the Regiment.

Fashion is a mysterious thing. La favorite used to be popular; now it gathers dust on shelves. But it is an impressive work (being by an impressive composer).

I tell Abbado and the audience a little story: Years ago, I went to a concert performance of Dom Sébastien, Donizetti’s last opera. It is never, ever staged (to my knowledge). I figured it wouldn’t be much — otherwise, it would be better known, right?

Wrong. The thing is absolutely superb. And yet it languishes in obscurity. (I hate that cliché — to languish in obscurity — but it’s handy.)

I have a confession for Abbado: It took me a long time to like bel canto opera (Donizetti, Rossini, Bellini . . .). I always liked excerpts, and I admired the big ones: The Barber of Seville, Norma, and so on. But it look me a long while to warm up to the genre at large.

Here was something curious: Why did the music often seem happy and upbeat when the words or the action on the stage was horrific? The music and the words, or action, did not seem to match.

Abbado smiles in anticipation of addressing these subjects. First, the matter of “happy” music in sad or horrific situations: It all depends on how the orchestra plays it. He gives us an example of “happy,” or happy-seeming, music, putting anxiety into it. Even as he sings or hums, we feel the anxiety.

There is a style — a particular style — that one must get the hang of. It can be foreign to the modern ear.

As for liking bel canto, Abbado not only understands me, and sympathizes with me, and empathizes with me, he does me one better: It took him a while to like opera in general. (Same with me.) He was one of those instrumentalists who looked askance at opera. (Same with me.)

The truth is, there’s a lot of bad music in opera, and great music, too. Exactly the same can be said for other branches of music: the orchestral repertoire, the chamber repertoire, etc.

I tell Abbado and the audience about my friend Kevin Murphy — a pianist and conductor who has long worked in opera and voice. His wife is Heidi Grant Murphy, the famous soprano. If someone is tempted to give him a hard time about opera, he simply says, “Mozart wrote operas — like 22 of them.”

That shuts ’em up.

Roberto Abbado is a fantastically likable personality. (And he does a glorious and gripping job in La favorite later on.)

One afternoon, I see workmen weeding the rock walls of the Mönchsberg (one of the mountains of Salzburg). At least I think they’re “weeding” them. They’re getting rid of grassy obtrusions. And isn’t that kind of cheating? Shouldn’t nature be allowed to take its course?

Nah — the rock walls bare, weedless, are much better.

I have long thought, it’s amazing what buses can do — or rather, bus drivers. They are athletes, these people: models of hand-eye coordination and, above all, nerve. The hair-pin turns they make. The tight spots they get into and out of, going forward or backward. I could scarcely do with a moped what some of these guys can do with long, unwieldy buses.

In the early night, I’m having a walk along the Mönchsberg. Down below, in Kapitelplatz, The Magic Flute is playing on a big screen. The “Ladies Trio” is echoing through the night.

Kind of nice, and better than a stick in the eye. And in Mozart’s hometown! (The Magic Flute, as you know, is one of those 22 operas by Mozart.)

I’ll wrap up this journal tomorrow, y’all. Thanks and see you.