Salzburg Journal, Part III


Motoring along here — or more like moseying? More like motoring, I think. Anyway, for the first two parts of this journal, go here and here.

Especially when I take a certain walk, I see several nuns, and they have no makeup and no facelifts. Frankly, they look better — certainly more natural — than some of the ladies who attend the festival.

A friend of mine tells me one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard in my entire life. Her parents were of means, and they had many domestic servants. They came and go, those servants. “Mother was a firer. She loved to fire servants. It made her feel good. She said that she was never so cheerful as after ‘a good firing.’ She’d call them in and say, ‘Your services are no longer required.’ And then she’d feel like a million bucks. Tells you something about my mom, doesn’t it?”

Again, one of the funniest things I have ever heard in my entire life (in part owing to my friend’s delivery — utterly sincere, matter-of-fact, amused, and appalled).

The second guest in our Salzburg Festival Society series is Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Finnish conductor. He was long with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He is now with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. (This is the orchestra that launched him, in a way.) And at the festival, he is conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, the resident band.

He is conducting them in Janáček’s opera The Makropulos Case. I ask whether he likes the piece — and whether a conductor has to like a piece in order to conduct it well.

He says he indeed likes Makropulos, very much. He has been “drooling over” the prospect of conducting it. And he long ago stopped conducting music he didn’t like or love. In the early part of his career, he conducted many pieces he didn’t care for, even hated: He had to do so, in order to make his way in the profession. But now he has the luxury of conducting only music he likes or loves.

“So, what are some of the pieces you hated but conducted anyway, early on?” I ask. He gives a wry answer: “One thing about getting older is that you forget things.” Yeah, right!

Later in our discussion, I ask what happens when he is leading an opera and he and a principal singer disagree: Who wins? Whose word goes?

It depends, of course. Salonen recalls the time in 1984 (if I’ve heard him correctly) when he was conducting Pelléas et Mélisande, at the Maggio Musicale (in Florence). The soprano, displeased with him, threw a shoe at him — a high heel. She threw it very hard. “She could have been an athlete,” that’s how hard the soprano threw the shoe. But she missed. “It could have been the end of my career,” says Salonen.

Okay, what if a conductor disagrees with the director (i.e., the stage director)? Who wins then? In the old days, the conductor would have won, of course: A stage director didn’t cross Toscanini or Reiner or Szell. But things are different now. Salonen says that, when his tooth hurts, he goes to the dentist. He trusts the dentist, the professional. In the same way, he trusts a stage director with stage direction.

My view, have to tell you, is that some dentists would do a much better job of directing than some well-known and highly paid stage directors.

We talk a bit about conducting ballet. That is a whole different kettle of fish — different from conducting symphonic music, different from conducting opera. Salonen says that he was fired from a ballet job, in the first part of his career. He wanted to conduct with a certain freedom; the dancers, or their administration, demanded strict, predictable tempos.

And we talk about Sibelius, Finland’s composer and hero. I ask, “Is it possible to be Finnish and dislike Sibelius? Are you required to like him?” Salonen gives a long, interesting, and, at times, moving answer. He says that young people go through a period of rebellion, a “kill your father” period. He himself didn’t want anything to do with Sibelius. He was sickened by the aura of reverence around the master.

He went to Italy — to Milan — as a student (if I’ve heard him correctly). He needed an escape to “a Sibelius-free zone.” One day, he was pedaling his bike, and found a shop that sold musical scores. For 300 liras, he bought a copy of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony. (Again, I hope I’ve heard him correctly.) That was the price of an espresso. And he was struck by the originality and magnificence of the piece.

Salonen learned to admire and love Sibelius, not because he was Finnish, but because he was — is — great.