Longtime readers may remember my talking about my late friend George Sgalitzer. He was the senior patron of the Salzburg Festival. Born in Vienna, he became an American, working as an Army doctor. He was present for the very first performance at the Salzburg Festival: the performance of Jedermann, on August 22, 1920. Jedermann is the play by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, one of the festival’s founders. It is his version of Everyman, the English morality play.
George — Dr. Sgalitzer — was seven years old that day in 1920. He was taken by his grandparents to see the play. They liked theater, but music, not so much. George was a devourer of both.
He told me about seeing the first Jedermann — the first actor in that role — at that first performance. He could remember it all like it was yesterday. The actor was an Austrian of Albanian origin, Alessandro Moissi (as his name was rendered in Italian). George was pained by what became of Jedermann, in modern productions. He eventually gave up attending.
This year, Jedermann is played by Nicholas Ofczarek, another Austrian actor, and brilliant. The devil in the production is a businessman, or so it appears: pinstriped suit and all. Of course, the businessman has been Marxism’s devil from time immemorial. So, so tired, and absurd.
It’s sort of amazing that, in 2011, they bother to put on a Christian morality play at all. There’s life in the old girl yet, for sure.
‐During the Salzburg Festival falls every year Maria Himmelfahrt — which is to say, the Assumption. It is a national holiday, I believe. The shops are closed. Every year, I hear the term “Maria Himmelfahrt” — and I can’t help smiling a little. Am I eternally seven years old? And I’m not as mature a seven-year-old as George Sgalitzer, clearly.
‐One morning at a Vienna Philharmonic concert, Jacqueline Bisset sits a few seats over from me. She ignores me — just as she has done my whole life. So rude.
I’ve just done a little Googling — cursed thing — and see that she is to be 70 in three years. Is she still beautiful? Oh, man, believe me.
I also hear that Nastassja Kinski is about. I don’t see her. She, too, ignores me.
‐The fifth and final guest in our Salzburg Festival Society series is Kent Nagano, the American conductor — born and bred in California. He has held many posts, in many countries — both symphonic posts and operatic posts. He holds one of each at the moment: the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the Bavarian State Opera. Nagano comes to us in the company of his wife, Mari Kodama, a pianist. This is not a couple who shrink from working with each other, either: They will perform a Mozart concerto together soon.
The conductor and I first talk about his name: How is it pronounced? Does he say Nah-GAH-no or NAH-gah-no, as in the Olympic city? Neither, really: The syllables in his name should be pronounced evenly. And the Nagano that is his name and the Nagano that is the city’s name are different Naganos: different pronunciations, different meanings.
I think most people — certainly most Americans — find it natural to pronounce the conductor’s name Nah-GAH-no. But those Olympics threw us off a little. In any case . . .
At some point, Nagano and I get around to talking about contemporary composers, and he has much to say about Pierre Boulez. Let me quote something I wrote in 2006, in a “Salzburg Chronicle” for The New Criterion. This came during comments on a performance of Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata by Maurizio Pollini:
You are perhaps familiar with the King James phrase “an hard saying.” Well, this is an hard saying: After this beloved composer-conductor [Boulez] is gone — and after his many friends and supporters among performers are gone — scarcely a note of his music will be heard. At least that is my suspicion. And I suspect the same is true of many, many other contemporary composers, in what we might call the Boulez school. I suspect that future generations will look back at our era — how many times has James Levine programmed Elliott Carter? a million? — and say, “What in the world were they thinking? Why were they under this bizarre spell, or why did they think they had to pay this obligation?” Then again, I may be nuts.
Nagano thinks I’m nuts — or would, if he knew what I thought. It is Nagano’s belief that Boulez’s music will endure. That he will be recognized as a master.
He also says something about Messiaen — Olivier Messiaen, the late French composer, with whom he worked closely. Nagano had a hand in the premiere of Messiaen’s opera Saint-François d’Assise (if I have understood him correctly). That is, he was part of the team that prepared the opera. This was in 1983. And he and others working on it had the impression that they were in the presence of a great opera — one that would last and last. Nagano tells us that, already, it is performed, not often, but “regularly.”
I want to mention something he said about conductors, too: The best may not be the most famous. He cites Günter Wand, the German who lived from 1912 to 2002. Recognition — world recognition — came to him quite late. And that recognition was deserved, for he was a magnificent conductor, says Nagano.
This warmed me, Nagano’s plug for Wand.
‐Stay on the subject of conductors: The Vienna Philharmonic concert — the one where Jackie Bisset ignored me — was led by Mariss Jansons, the estimable Latvian maestro. A few years ago, he, too, was a guest in our SFS series. He was born in hiding, in Riga, in 1943. His mother was Jewish. His uncle and grandfather had already been killed by the Gestapo. Latvia was one of those countries hit by the double-evil of Nazism and Communism — Communism for much longer, of course.
The day he conducts, it is the 20th anniversary, I believe: the 20th anniversary of independence — reaffirmed sovereignty — for the Baltic states.
‐Speaking of Latvian conductors: There is something called the Nestlé and Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award. (Mmmm, chocolate.) This year, it is won by Ainars Rubikis, a Latvian. The “patron” of the jury was Pierre Boulez (I’m not sure what that means); the chairman was Franz Welser-Möst. There is another young Latvian conductor, one who is loaded with promise: Andris Nelsons, a protégé of Jansons.
Actually, he is more than promising: The music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and a guest at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere, he has already delivered huge satisfaction. Keep watching — for Latvians and others.
‐One of my favorite people at the Salzburg Festival is Hannie Gupta, who comes from Calcutta. Her husband was a great music-lover and patron of the arts, and the grandson of Lord Sinha. Mr. Gupta was a particular lover of Mozart. Mrs. Gupta herself is a great music-lover, and lady. Her family came from Baghdad — Jews. She is a very interesting mixture of cultural strains. She tells me, with a warm smile, “I have a Western mind and an Eastern heart.”
She could write a nice small book on that very subject. I kind of wish she would!
‐Have you ever photographed the same scenes — the same things — over and over, even in the knowledge that you have a thousand photos of those very scenes already? Every year, I can’t help taking pictures of the same scenes, the same vistas, in and around Salzburg — mountains, castles, lakes, and the like. Weird.
Of course, in the digital age, nothing costs money, if you know what I mean. If we were using film, as in ancient times — we would exercise discretion.
‐Late in my stay, I have occasion to call to a company back home. The man ends our conversation with, “Have a goo’ one” — I love that touch of home.
‐On the plane from Vienna is Anna Netrebko, the Russian soprano. Onstage, she is just about the most magnetic and alluring opera performer there is. Offstage, she seems an ordinary mom — ordinarily wonderful, of course.
‐On the tarmac at JFK, a boy calls excitedly to his brother, “Ethan, we’re back in America!”
Thanks for joining me, ladies and gentlemen. I’ll have proper music criticism in National Review, and even more of it in The New Criterion, soon.