Editor’s Note: For the first half of August, Jay Nordlinger was at the Salzburg Festival, hosting a series of public interviews and writing criticism. The criticism will appear soon in National Review and The New Criterion. This online journal began yesterday, here.
I may have noted this in journals past: The street music in Salzburg is superb. Whether classical or jazz, on accordions, from brass bands, or what have you, it is of almost uniformly high quality. Makes me wonder whether they have to audition or something.
In my experience, the street music in New York is poor. New York is supposed to be such a great music capital — yet the street music is almost never worth pausing for. In fact, it makes you quicken your pace. Perhaps I have merely been walking the wrong streets for all these years (and using the wrong subway stations).
One day in Salzburg, I pass a jazz ensemble — and stop. Because the playing is so good — I mean, genuinely first-rate. This is a trio, led by a clarinetist, supported by a guitarist and a double-bass player. After they’re done with the piece, I put a couple of euros in the clarinet case and say, “Thank you.”
A couple of days later, I am rushing back to my room — and am stopped by them again. They’re playing “Beyond the Sea.” The playing is in perfect taste, almost hypnotic. It’s amazing how melancholy this song can be, though the surface is cheerful. By now, I have no choice but to buy their CD — which is just a homemade job, without liner notes or anything fancy.
It turns out they’re a trio from Slovakia, billed as the Cassovia Band. The clarinetist is Jozef Baňa. Honestly, people in New York and Salzburg and elsewhere pay serious money to hear music performed by people far, far inferior to this Slovakian trio.
I used to be amazed at where talent comes from, and where it’s found — how out-of-the-blue it can be. The amazement has faded into something more like expectation.
The second guest in our Salzburg Festival Society series is Bejun Mehta, a countertenor from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Any relation to Zubin, the famed conductor? Yes. The two are cousins of a sort. But the relationship basically, says Bejun, is that between uncle and nephew.
Not so long ago, countertenors were rare and exotic. These days, they’re a dime a dozen — though Mehta is outstanding among them. Here in Salzburg, he’s singing the title role of Handel’s opera Tamerlano.
He began life — or began his career — as a boy soprano. Then he went baritone, for a bit. Then he found his true voice, he says — true adult voice — as a countertenor. He also spent some time as a record producer.
“I’ve always wondered,” I say to him: “What does a record producer do?” He chuckles and gives a thorough and excellent answer. (Frightfully articulate, Mehta is.) The long and the short of it: They do a little or a lot, depending . . .
Wish I could give you a transcript.
Here in the German-speaking lands, the word for “voice recital” is “Liederabend” — an evening of song. At this year’s festival, the baritone Christian Gerhaher gives a recital at 11:30 in the morning. “So,” I ask some friends, “can I call it a Liedermorgen,” meaning, a morning of song? No, they reply: still a Liederabend.
I see one of those “stationary men” put on his makeup. You know the men I mean (and a few women, I guess)? I’m talking about those mime-like men who remain frozen, attracting people to them. Then they’ll make sudden moves, causing people to titter.
They are easy to despise — as mimes are easy to despise, by those prone to such despising. Some years ago, comedians used to joke about mimes, fantasizing about swatting them aside and so on. Do comedians still do that?
For years, I stayed at a hotel here in Salzburg near where a particular stationary man plied his craft. I didn’t like what he did. I particularly didn’t like the luring of children: You get the attention of a child, who will want to stare, and whose parents might eventually put a coin or two in your bucket.
But I watched him day after day — and grew to admire him. He worked very hard, often in hot weather, covered in all that makeup and an elaborate costume. He was skillful. And he provided pleasure.
I started throwing coins into the bucket, as I whizzed by. He’d wink or something. I occasionally saw him on a cigarette break. We developed kind of a friendship, I swear — though we never spoke.
People who learn a craft, work their butts off, provide some pleasure, make a little money (maybe very little) — what’s to despise?