Editor’s Note: Earlier this month, Jay Nordlinger was at the Salzburg Festival in Austria, hosting a public-interview series for the Salzburg Festival Society and writing criticism. Some of this criticism has appeared at The New Criterion’s website. More will appear in the print edition of that magazine, as well as the print edition of National Review. This journal is for odds and ends. For Part I, go here. The series ends today.
Of all the street performers in Salzburg — and there are many — I like Street Whispers the best. They are a trio, composed of clarinet, accordion, and double bass. These men are from Poland. They play hot klezmer jazz — I can’t think of a better description — and their own versions of Piazzolla tangos. There is more in their repertory as well. They are very musical, and utterly engaging.
Outstanding is the clarinetist. He has a refined sense of music and excellent control over his instrument. As I listen to him, I think he ought to be in the halls, rather than on the street.
‐Imagine this: You wake up on a sun-splashed morning. You take a walk on the Mönchsberg. At 11, you go to a concert of the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Riccardo Muti, with Yefim Bronfman as piano soloist. Afterward, you attend a beautiful luncheon with your friends, held in a beautiful spot.
What could be more civilized? Nothing could be more civilized than Salzburg. It breathes peace, order, and beauty. What could ever go wrong?
Ha ha. Within living memory, this place exploded, murderously.
I wrote about this in a blogpost headed “The Fragility of Civilization,” here. To keep civilization going — and to keep barbarous forces in check — requires constant attention, or, to borrow a phrase, eternal vigilance.
‐We are continuing our series of conversations, in the Salzburg Festival Society — and our fourth guest is Joseph Calleja, the Maltese tenor. What a beautiful voice he owns. Last night, he sang in I due Foscari, the Verdi opera, along with Plácido Domingo, the great tenor — great former tenor — who is now singing baritone. Domingo is an astounding 76. That may not be astounding for a conductor. Or for a writer. But for an opera singer?
Like him or not, says Calleja — and almost everybody does — you have to honor Domingo for the career he has had in opera. He still has freshness in the voice, Calleja notes. And no wobble. No wobble, emphasizes Calleja. That is nearly incredible for 76.
Joseph Calleja is a marvelous guest — bright, articulate, humorous, wide-ranging. He tells a story about this amazing instrument of his. When he was a kid, he took part in Rigoletto (another Verdi opera), singing in the chorus. During the abduction scene, a veteran singer took off his mask, looked straight at Calleja, and said, “Bella voce — devi studiare.” “Beautiful voice — you have to study.” This was right in the middle of a performance!
Today, Calleja is one of the top tenors in the business.
Near the end of our conversation, he says that he is worried about the “dumbification” of the world — rising anti-intellectualism and the like. What will this do to opera and other classical music?
A good question.
‐Go back up onto the Mönchsberg with me. There is a chic lady, in her early thirties, I would say. She’s wearing a short dress. Probably going to a concert later, or a social affair. (Another social affair?) She has a little dog with her and is talking on her cell. She holds the phone in front of her, using the speaker function. All the while, she is tramping over some fairly rough terrain. And doing it with apparent ease.
Remarkable, and not atypical.
‐“Achtung!” says a bicycle rider to a pedestrian who is not in the proper lane. No matter how many times I hear it — this “Attention!” — I can’t help thinking of World War II movies. Or of Hogan’s Heroes.
‐I have a friend here who is lovely and the heiress to a fortune. I compliment her on a terrific pearl necklace. “Fake,” she says. What? Yes. Then she tells me, “My father always said, Go ahead and buy costume jewelry. On you, everyone will think they are real.”
I love that. Just love it.
‐Teodor Currentzis is a conductor, born in Greece, working in Russia. He founded his own orchestra: musicAeterna. (Yes, it is rendered that way.) He also founded a chorus to go with it. He is a phenomenon. And he is our next guest in the SFS series.
Currentzis studied with a legendary conducting teacher in Russia, Ilya Musin. By the time Currentzis got to him, Musin was quite aged. He lived from 1904 to 1999. “He was born before Shostakovich,” Currentzis points out, in a marveling tone. (Shostakovich lived from 1906 to 1975.)
I wish I could quote to you our entire Q&A. Let me relate one or two more things.
As far as I’m concerned, YouTube is the greatest invention since the wheel. But for a performer, it can be double-edged. For the consumer, it is an unqualified bonanza. But for the performer — myriad problems.
Think of a knife, says Currentzis. You can use it to cut your bread — or you can use it to kill someone. That’s YouTube.
A member of the audience asks Currentzis about spirituality. Currentzis talks for a bit. And then tells this story. (I hope I can share it correctly. If not, it’ll be in the ballpark.)
Once, he was in Crete, which was the scene of terrible events in World War II. With someone else, Currentzis went to a German cemetery. No one ever visited these places. Why would they, except possibly to desecrate them?
There was an old woman in the cemetery — a Greek woman — tending the graves. “She’s crazy,” said the person Currentzis was with. “She was raped by the Germans, and they killed her children. She’s crazy. She comes here to the cemetery and tends the graves. No one asks her to do it, no one pays her. It’s just what she does. Sadly, she’s crazy.”
Currentzis went up to her and said, “Grandmother, why are you doing this?” She answered, “Because there are mothers in Germany who have no idea where their sons are.”
‐I want to go to a deli — it’s closed. I want to go to the pastry shop next door as well. It, too, is closed. What the …? The sign on each door says that the place is closed from 12:30 to 1:30. That’s the lunch hour. They are having lunch.
I’m ticked about this. But at the same time, I admire it. I think I remember that, once upon a time, stores in America closed over the lunch hour. Can it still be true?
‐Here in Salzburg, I have an American friend who went to one of our better colleges. This was in the 1950s. I ask whether she got a scholarship. No, she says. Her dad forbade her to apply for a scholarship. He wasn’t terribly well off — but he said that other students needed a scholarship more than she did.
I wonder if this spirit still exists in our country …
‐The president of the Salzburg Festival is Helga Rabl-Stadler, a formidable and delightful lady. She is a native Salzburger. She knows everyone in town. She was the head of the chamber of commerce. Before that, she was a member of parliament — the national parliament. Before that, she was a journalist. She comes from a retailing family.
And she is our guest — our penultimate guest — in the SFS series. She has much to say, about the festival and related matters, and she says it very well.
I ask whether there is a town-and-gown dynamic in Salzburg. Whether some local people resent the festival. There is some of that, she says, or implies. Many people think of the festival as something lofty, above and beyond them. In her tenure as president, she has tried to bring Salzburgers and the festival closer together.
I also ask her about her favorite restaurants and sweet shops. This is a highly dangerous question, as, again, she knows everyone. She is sort of the mayor. She can’t afford to offend people. Regardless, she generously gives us a few tips — the ultimate inside knowledge — while swearing us to secrecy …
‐My friend Peggy? She, too, is a native Salzburger. And she attended her first festival performance in 1935.
‐I talk with a British friend — a patron of the arts and a financial whiz. He tells me about the complications of Brexit — undoing 40 years of arrangements. It is a fearsomely hard task for the government, he says. No one quite grasps how hard, and how tricky, it is.
This fills me with sympathy for the British government.
‐There are Jehovah’s Witnesses about — faithfully offering their literature. I have always sympathized with them. Now that they have been banned in Russia — I have more sympathy than ever. I admire their willingness to stand for their faith.
‐The last guest in our series of conversations — the grand finale — is Russell Thomas, an American tenor. At the festival this summer, he is singing the title role in a Mozart opera, La clemenza di Tito. Mozart is notoriously hard to sing. Thomas puts it this way:
“If you have a weakness, he shows it. If you’re tired, he shows it. If you can’t handle passagework, he shows it. If you have any imperfection — he shows it. If you sing him perfectly — no one cares.”
Mozart, in this way, can be thankless.
Russell Thomas grew up in Miami. He was raised by his grandmother. He sang in church. On the radio, he heard classical music — and he was on his way. An amazing rise it was.
His favorite tenor is Carlo Bergonzi (1924-2014). Another favorite singer of his? Not a tenor, but a soprano: Dame Gwyneth Jones (born 1936).
How about pop singers? Thomas has a quick answer: Tom Jones — from Wales, like Dame Gwyneth. Yes, the Welsh can sing, big-time.
‐I mentioned the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I also see Mormons, a pair of them, with their white shirts and their name tags. “Elder” So-and-so, each name tag says. These guys look so very young. They must have balls of brass, to do what they do. I admire them as well.
‐With Yefim Bronfman, the above-mentioned pianist, I have done a podcast. (Go here.) He tells me that he sings a little. “Baritone?” I ask. Probably bass, he says. “Depends on how much I smoke.” He says that he sings when he feels tired, or not so good. It makes him feel better.
Huh. Most people, I would guess, sing when they’re fresh and happy (if they sing) — and can barely sing when they’re tired or down. This is one of the many extraordinary things about Bronfman.
Is that enough, ladies and gentlemen? I think it is. Thanks so much for joining me on this little journey. I’ll catch you soon.
A word from the National Review Store: To get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.