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.
I ask the conductor to comment on a mystery: Why did Sibelius stop composing in the last 30 years of his life? Did he lose his gift? Did the muse stop speaking to him or something?
Salonen says he has a theory — just a theory. Sibelius was the most famous Finn in the world. The only Finn on the cover of Time magazine, for example. The entire nation looked up to him. The entire nation revered and adulated him. There was great pressure on him, according to this theory, to compose very well, to make every piece a masterpiece. The pressure got to him.
Salonen relates, “His biographer went into a bakery to buy some bread, and the baker refused to charge him. ‘How can we take money from the biographer of our great Sibelius?’” That was the atmosphere in Finland.
Anyway, a theory, and I’m glad to have heard it.
When a student, Salonen studied the French horn, a notoriously difficult instrument. He says that, compared with the French horn, the trumpet, trombone, and other brass instruments are “like nothing.” I say that, as a critic, I tend to cut horn players a lot of slack — maybe too much — because they are virtually destined to flub. “You are right to cut them slack,” says Salonen.
He says that something funny happens, when he conducts an orchestra. There is a certain understanding between him and the horn section. They know that he was a horn player; he knows that they know. The common feeling is, “We know how hard this is, right?” “I don’t even look at them,” Salonen tells me. Often, when a conductor looks at an orchestra member, it’s to admonish, remonstrate, rebuke. “And the worse they play, the less I look at them.”
Believe me, musicians, especially orchestral musicians, would find this hilarious.
Salonen has one of the great “creation stories” in all of music. By that I mean, the story of the launch of his career is absolutely wonderful. I will tell it as Salonen told it, as I remember his telling it.
In 1983, Michael Tilson Thomas was scheduled to conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra. He injured himself playing tennis. Orchestra management had to scramble to find a substitute. They reached the bottom of the barrel: Salonen, a young, unknown conductor in Finland. Salonen’s manager gave him a call, at 7:30 in the morning. Salonen was none too pleased; he had been up late with his mates.
The manager spent half his time working in music and half his time selling golf equipment. He had his office at a golf course in western Finland. That’s where the faxes came in, regarding his musical clients, including Salonen.
He said to Salonen, “The Philharmonia wants you to conduct Mahler’s Third Symphony three days from now.” Salonen said, in essence, “You’re joking.” Salonen didn’t know this symphony. He hadn’t heard it, hadn’t seen it. He said, “Well, let me go to the library and have a look.” He learned the score. And he conducted the Philharmonia.
Recognize, please, that the Mahler Third is not an ordinary piece of music — it is not “Twinkle, Twinkle.” It is one of the strangest, most profound, most important symphonies in the entire literature. It is also “the longest,” says Salonen.
After the Philharmonia concert, a man approached him and said, “I’m Ernest Fleischmann, the executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I think you should be our next music director.” Salonen thought this man was a crackpot, practically a street person. He later learned that there was indeed a man named Ernest Fleischmann, and that he was indeed the executive director of the L.A. Philharmonic.
Following this London triumph of Salonen’s, the faxes started to pour into that golf course in Finland: Salonen was known and in demand.
I have more from Salonen, but maybe we knock off for today, after one more (unrelated) item?
In the first installment of this journal, I mentioned Bruckner — Anton Bruckner, the Austrian composer who lived from 1824 to 1896 — about whom I gave a talk, to a group of American music-lovers. During my stay in Salzburg, I run into a dear lady from Upper Austria, which is to say, Bruckner country. She tells me something I never knew: Her grandmother was one of the young women with whom Bruckner fell in love. Bruckner fell in love with many such women, or girls. Nothing ever came of it.
My friend, the Upper Austrian, is one of the most elegant, most engaging, most sparkling women around. With her words, she gives me a picture of her grandmother and that milieu. And, after we’ve talked, I feel I have touched the life of Bruckner, somehow.
Okay, more tomorrow — thanks.