Politics & Policy

Salzburg Journal, Part II

Emily Magee as Strauss’s Ariadne (Ruth Walz)

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?

‐I’m invited to lunch at a castle — a real, honest-to-goodness, working castle. By “working,” I mean lived in, maintained, not a relic or a museum. Used to be owned by the Habsburgs. Then it passed into the hands of a German industrialist family. Now it’s owned by a lone American. It is high, high in the Alps — way high.

Words are supposed to be my business, but I’m at a loss to describe this place: both the “house” and the grounds. And the surroundings. The whole scene is staggering. “You have to see it for yourself” is such a cop-out. What’s the point of writing about a place if a person has to see it for himself?

Let me give you just one tidbit — just one. You’re so high in the Alps, the peaks seem quite close. Eerily “short,” if you know what I mean.

‐I meet a musician from Bulgaria — has lived in Salzburg for about 15 years. He grew up under Communism, the tail end. We talk about it a little. He is not nostalgic about Communism, does not suffer from illusions. But . . .

He says there was a unity among people in that era. No one had any money. And they all had a common enemy: the Communist party! Now, he says, there are rancorous social divisions. With freedom, of course, come inequalities (and there are inequalities in Communist states too — particularly between the elites, or nomenklatura, and the masses).

Under Communism, there are fewer choices — which can be easier for some. The Bulgarian musician says (I paraphrase), “There were five kinds of trousers, three kinds of toothpaste, one kind of toilet paper.” He has a funny memory about the toilet paper: One factory made it, and just one. Occasionally, there were rumors that the factory would shut down for a while — so there was a run on TP, with people clearing out the shelves.

When he first came to Salzburg, he made friends among the foreigners — it was easier than making friends with the locals. He particularly made friends with the blacks and the Arabs, because they were obviously foreigners. There were maybe a dozen blacks and Arabs in those days, he says.

“And now?” I ask. “Hundreds?” “No,” he says. “Thousands.” Salzburg, which seems timeless, is not immune to the demographic trends of broader Europe.

‐The next guest in our Salzburg Festival Society series is Emily Magee, a soprano from upstate New York — and she’s singing the title role of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. (Strauss was one of the founders of this festival, by the way.)

She is a warm, engaging, unaffected personality, Emily Magee. She tells us she wanted to be a music teacher — a choir director. But her singing and her voice were too good to allow that. (This is me talking — Emily herself would never say it, I feel sure.)

Someone suggested she study with Margaret Harshaw, a well-known dramatic soprano and teacher (1909-97). “She’ll say, ‘No, I’m too old and too busy,’” said this person. “But you must persist.”

Sure enough, Harshaw said to Emily, “No: I’m too old, and in any case I’m too busy.” But Emily persisted — and the second Harshaw heard her sing, she took her.

One of the singers Emily admired most was Leontyne Price. One day, she went to a Price recital. Afterward, she went back to the greenroom, to meet the great lady. When she got to the front of the line, no words would come out. Emily couldn’t speak. Price said to her — I can just hear her — “Are you nervous?”

Emily imitates her perfectly. She gets the Price voice — her speaking voice — exactly: a mixture of semi-Continental hauteur and Laurel, Mississippi (where Price is from).

Another singer she admired — was wild over — was Pavarotti. I have discovered something, over the years. There are two groups of people who are wild over Pavarotti: the best singers in the world; and the masses. Isn’t that interesting? Middlebrow types are apt to sneer at the Pav Man.

A few more tidbits, from our hour with Emily Magee: Minnie, from Puccini’s Fanciulla del West, is a famous “voice-wrecker.” Most sopranos won’t go near it. But Emily loves it, loves Minnie — and happily sings her.

Also, she confirms what many a native English speaker says: English is a very hard language to sing in. Curious, huh?

Finally, she talks about the reputation sopranos have — for being divas, in the bad sense. For being insufferable you-know-whats. “I came up the Wagner route,” says Emily, “and this is not really true of Wagner singers. Others, maybe, but not Wagner singers. People tend to be nice and supportive — and relatively humble — in that world.”

There are reasons for this: which we can get into later. Speaking of later — had enough for one day? Me too. See you tomorrow, for the last installment. Thanks much.


To order Jay Nordlinger’s new book, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.


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