Politics & Policy

Salzburg Journal, Part IV

Um, in case you’re just joining us, we’re doing a “Salzburg journal,” a mess of notes on the town of Salzburg and its famous music festival. (There’s theater too, but we don’t bother with that so much. Although there’ll be an item on theater tomorrow.) Previous links are here: I, II, and III. On to IV, then?

One of the soloists performing at the festival is Viktoria Mullova, the Russian violinist. Very glam. Striking, stunning. She is sweating like hell in the Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum — a hothouse — and is all the more stunning for it.

Later that evening, I happen to have dinner with a violinist (female) of a certain age. She asks me how the Mullova recital went. I give my opinion, then I say, “In any case, she looked fantastic.” The older violinist fixes me with a look and says, “Who’s more beautiful? Mullova or Anne-Sophie Mutter?” (another violinist). I say, “Flip a coin.”

Flash-forward about five days: I see Mutter attending a recital (Arcadi Volodos, the Russian pianist). Afterward, I see her outside her hotel, the Goldener Hirsch.

You know how a pianist will say, when asked which is his favorite Beethoven sonata, “The one I’m working on at the moment”? You know who’s more beautiful, Mullova or Mutter? The one you’re looking at at the moment.

‐I have lunch with a British friend of mine, a banker and music expert (which is a nice combination). He lives in London. The rioting is still in progress (if “progress” is the word). I say, “Do you think London will pull through?” He says, “The question is, Will the West pull through?”

You may wonder why I’m reporting this. The reason is as follows: My friend is a mild, measured man, not given to apocalyptic or even dramatic pronouncements (unlike me). His words got my attention: If Vincent is thinking this way . . .

‐Yesterday, I reported on a Q&A we had with Esa-Pekka Salonen, the famed Finnish conductor. Let me give you a bit more.

He is a great lover of Stravinsky, and while he was living and working in Los Angeles, he considered buying Stravinsky’s house. It was on the market. Indeed, it was in foreclosure. The price was very good.

He went to visit. There were still signs of Stravinsky about. There had been only one owner since the Stravinskys lived there. You could see the marks from his piano in the wall-to-wall carpeting. You could see the hook where Vera (Mrs. Stravinsky) tethered the goat. Igor was allergic to cow’s milk, you see, so drank goat’s milk.

Now, Salonen is a composer, as well as a conductor. And a friend said to him, “Say you’re sitting in Stravinsky’s studio. You’re about to write a piece. Can you get down one note?” Salonen decided not, and passed on the house.

He tells us that someone else bought it, razed it, and built another in its place. He grew the hedges very high around the new house — to discourage pilgrims.

Salonen gave up the reins of the L.A. Phil. to Gustavo Dudamel, a hotshot young Venezuelan conductor. Salonen had arranged the transition. And he feels very good about it. Yet the transition, he acknowledges, is “bittersweet.” Once, Salonen was the hotshot young conductor. (He’s still a hotshot, in my view, sitting here in Salzburg in his black T-shirt and funky facial hair.)

We talk about composing, and I ask where he gets the time — how he makes the time. I used to think Mahler composed only in the summer. (Otherwise, he was busy with his conductorial duties.) Then I learned that it was worse than that: He had only six weeks in the summer to compose, not the full summer.

I used to think that Borodin was only a weekend composer. (Otherwise, he was a noted and important chemist.) Then I learned that it was worse than that: He had some Saturday obligation, or routine; he composed only on Sundays.

So, Salonen? He says he is trying to arrange his life to be 50-50: half the year devoted to conducting, half the year devoted to composing, “and so-called ‘life.’” I love that: He means domestic duties and the like.

What does he compose on? Does he use pen and paper, or does he use a computer program? He acknowledges that he uses a computer program — but he was very reluctant at first. “I thought it was cheating.”

Funny, but I’ve just written something like that, in an essay for National Review. I had occasion to mention that I was just about the last to switch to metal woods (in golf) — I thought they were cheating (which they are, in a way). (We could have long talks about golf equipment.)

I say, “There’s a program called Sibelius, isn’t there?” (Sibelius is the great composer from Salonen’s homeland, Finland.) “Yes,” says Salonen. “I am one of their poster boys.”

Oh, is he a pleasure to talk to, this guy. Smart, interesting, and candid. Very talented musician, too.

‐Next guests? A couple of singers, appearing in tandem. They are a tenor and a baritone, members of the cast for Così fan tutte. The tenor is a young American, Alek Shrader. The baritone is a youngish, established Englishman, Christopher Maltman.

Shrader is charming, polite, and super-likable. He was born in Cleveland and grew up in Oklahoma. His parents were opera singers who taught. Alek himself grew up singing. He had a rock band, in which he played guitar, as well as sang. “We were terrible,” he says.

In due course, he participated in the big Metropolitan Opera auditions. He won in memorable fashion, singing Mozart and Donizetti — the Donizetti was the famous “high C’s” aria, from The Daughter of the Regiment. The crowd loved him, with good reason.

Now he is taking things one step at a time (to borrow a phrase): a gig here, a gig there. No grand plan. Singing Mozart at the Salzburg Festival is pretty grand.

Maltman is a star of both the operatic stage and the recital hall. He is one smart cookie, singing persuasively in an assortment of languages and styles. He, too, had a rock band — it, too, he says, was “terrible.”

He did not have a typical musician’s route: He went to college (as we Americans would say) for biochemistry. He contemplated doing a Ph.D. But he veered in a musical direction.

I bet he would have been a fine biochemist. But a voice like his, a vocal ability like his — they do not grow on trees. (Neither do excellent biochemists, I’m sure.)

I ask about favorite singers — a clichéd question, maybe, but always a fun one. Shrader mentions Pavarotti, particularly for the Italian repertoire; and Wunderlich for the German. Maltman gives one, golden name: George London (the late Canadian-born bass-baritone).

What Maltman says about Mozart singing is very interesting: “He examines your technique,” Mozart does. You have to be in top shape in order to sing him. Other composers’ music, you may be able to fudge. Not Mozart’s. “For basses and baritones,” says Maltman, “he puts things just a little high. He stretches you. This adds an interesting musical and dramatic tension.” He challenges those in other vocal categories as well.

Maltman then tells a story about Thomas Adès, the contemporary English composer. Adès was writing something, and asked Maltman what his range was (basically). Maltman told him. When the music came out, it was a bit outside his range. “What gives?” said Maltman (in essence). The composer answered, “Oh, I wasn’t interested in merely what you were comfortable with.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I suppose I could close up shop today — complete the journal — but let’s keep this installment short-like, and do a Friday finale. Okay? Cool. See you.




The Latest