Impromptus

Culture Tells: A Salzburg Journal, Part II

The conductor Mariss Jansons at the Salzburg Festival, 2018 (Anne Zeuner)
Intersections, church bells, composers, and more

Editor’s Note: Jay Nordlinger spent the middle two weeks of August in Salzburg, Austria, working at the Salzburg Festival. He hosted a series of conversations for the Salzburg Festival Society and wrote criticism for National Review and The New Criterion. This online journal is mainly for fun. For yesterday’s installment, Part I, go here.

Every year, I notice this, and every year, I write about it. Here I go again: At intersections, pedestrians obey the lights, strictly. If the sign says Don’t Walk and there’s not a car for miles around, they won’t walk. They just won’t. My American feet can barely stand it. I often cheat, here in Salzburg. But if there are children, standing with their parents, I feel I can’t go. I don’t want to set a bad example. I don’t want the parents to have to say, “That’s a bad man. Don’t be like him.”

Tell you a story. It’s 1:30 a.m., and I’m coming home from dinner (a late one, obviously, post-concert). At an intersection, the light is red — Don’t Walk — but there is nary a car on the road, and I cross, unthinkingly, as though I’m at home.

On the other side of the street, there are two young men on bicycles, waiting. They’re about 20 years old. Sort of tough guys. Not quite hoodlums, but not choirboys either. I believe they say something rude about me as I approach. This is a long light, let me tell you. (I cross the intersection every day, usually several times.) I continue walking, but then I stop and look back at the young men. I look back with fascination. They won’t cross. Instead, they wait and wait. They’re not the goody-goody type — far from it — but it’s cultural. It’s ingrained. Traffic or no traffic, they won’t cross the street. They can’t. It’s impossible.

I stand there, watching. Finally, the light changes, and the young men cross. Remarkable.

• When I was growing up, people smoked. (I grew up in Michigan, U.S.A.) Then they stopped. Almost on a dime. I rarely sense cigarette smoke anymore (or cigar smoke or pipe smoke). Here in Salzburg, a lot of people smoke, including young people. I’m not used to it. I was, years ago — people even smoked on planes! And in movie theaters and everywhere else! I suppose I never noticed. But now I notice.

In Salzburg, I encounter more smoking in a day than I might in two weeks, or a month, in America — in New York, that is. Frankly, in New York, I’m more apt to sense marijuana smoke than cigarette smoke.

• It’s Saturday morning, the sun is shining, and church bells are playing Papageno’s music from The Magic Flute. It’s pleasant, I must say. Want to see a picture?

Want to see a hedgerow, all tidy-like?

Want to see the river Salzach, splitting the city?

• Out the window of a house comes Brahms. A pianist is practicing the D-minor concerto.

• A man I know — a business magnate — tells me something interesting. He had to appoint someone the chief executive of an airline. One of the interviewees never flew. He was scared of flying. My friend liked him, because the applicant was very hard-headed. He wasn’t a plane guy, filled with romantic notions. He wanted to run an efficient company and turn a profit. The other candidates waxed romantically about aviation.

My friend hired the guy who was afraid to fly. People at the company complained, saying that the guy was unsuited to the job. He did a very good job. Eventually, my friend moved him over to a mining company, which needed help. Which needed the kind of shaping up that the guy had done for the airline.

And the people who had complained about him, initially? They complained that he had been transferred.

• The second guest in the Salzburg Festival Society’s series of conversations is Mariss Jansons, the great Latvian-born conductor. At the festival this year, he is conducting Pique Dame, the Tchaikovsky opera. We start out by talking about Tchaikovsky. He has been acquainted with him since he was a toddler.

Jansons’s father was a conductor — Arvid — and his mother was a singer — Iraida. The family lived in Saint Petersburg, or Leningrad. The parents could not afford a babysitter, so they brought Mariss along to the concert hall and the opera house. He heard a great many works. He saw the Tchaikovsky ballets so much, he knew all the steps, in addition to all the music.

In the West, people have long knocked Tchaikovsky as too pretty and sentimental. This is mainly because of how he is performed, says Jansons — namby-pambily. In Russia, they know how to perform him: Classically, and with discipline. Jansons père would say, “You must not put too much honey in it! Don’t over-sweeten the pot!”

What a genius, Tchaikovsky was. A genius melodist and a genius composer generally. Jansons fils tells us a story about Stravinsky — who returned to Russia in 1962 for the first time since his exile, nearly 50 years before. Musicians gathered around him, enthusiastically and reverently. Someone asked, “Who are your favorite composers?” Stravinsky answered, “Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Debussy.”

How about that?

Jansons likes Pique Dame a lot. In the West, it is the No. 2 Tchaikovsky opera, behind Eugene Onegin. Jansons doesn’t understand this. He prefers Pique Dame. Indeed, he believes it belongs among the ten greatest operas.

I don’t have this view, at all, but so great is my respect for Jansons, I will have to reconsider the issue.

Want another Stravinsky story, from Jansons? Priceless. On this same return visit, someone asked Stravinsky, “What do you think of Prokofiev?” “Who?” said Stravinsky. “Prokofiev.” “Who?” “Sergei Prokofiev, our great composer.” Still, Stravinsky had a blank look. Finally, the person said, “Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev!” “Ah!” said Stravinsky. “Seryozha” (a diminutive for “Sergei”). “Good pianist.”

I ask Jansons to tell us some Shostakovich stories, too. Shostakovich was an anxious, guarded man, says Jansons. He mumbled. He liked two things a lot: soccer and women.

Shostakovich and Rostropovich, the cellist, were close. One day, Shostakovich called him and said, “Slava, I need you. Can you come over?” Rostropovich would have done anything for the great man. “Right away,” he said. When Rostropovich entered, Shostakovich said, “Thank you so much for coming, Slava. Please sit down. Now, let’s think.”

So, they sat and thought. At least Shostakovich did. Rostropovich didn’t know what to think. They sat in silence. Ten minutes passed. Twenty minutes. A half-hour. Forty-five minutes. An hour. An hour and ten minutes.

Without warning, Shostakovich turned to Rostropovich and said, “Thank you so much, Slava. You’ve helped me a lot. You can go now.”

I also pump Jansons for stories about Mravinsky, Yevgeny Mravinsky, the great and fearsome conductor in Leningrad. (Both of the Jansonses assisted him.) “He had a hypnotic effect on people,” says Jansons. “I have never seen anything like it, even from Karajan.”

Once, a bunch of big musicians were in a room — really big musicians: Gilels, Oistrakh, Richter. People on that level. They were talking and laughing and having a good time. Suddenly, the room went silent. Jansons could feel a presence behind him. Mravinsky had entered. Everyone in that room was paralyzed. And all of these top musicians were meek as lambs before Mravinsky, and also a little bit scared.

That was Mravinsky.

For eight years, Jansons was the music director in Pittsburgh. (Those were glorious years for the Pittsburgh orchestra.) “On almost every program, you had to play a new work by an American composer. Otherwise, the critics would kill you.” “But the audiences wouldn’t have minded,” I interject. Jansons shoots me a smile. “No,” he says. “Critics and audiences are two different things.”

We get to talking about orchestral personnel. Jansons tells a story. A conductor once guested with a provincial orchestra. He asked the oboe to play more softly. The oboe did not, really. The conductor asked again, and again. Finally, he said, “Excuse me, but can’t you play softer?” The player responded, “If I could, I’d be in a better orchestra.”

Mariss Jansons is not only a great conductor but a noble soul. This is evident in his music-making. The title “mahatma” — as in Mahatma Gandhi — means “great-souled one.” In recent years, I’ve taken to referring to this conductor as “Mahatma Jansons.”

• Jansons is a big one for attending his colleagues’ rehearsals and concerts. He’s always learning. The day after our interview, he’s in the Great Festival Hall, attending a Vienna Philharmonic concert. Riccardo Muti is on the podium, conducting Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 (forgettably) and Schubert’s Mass in E flat (memorably).

• It’s hot as hell in Salzburg. On the outskirts of town, there is a stream, or a kind of canal. Want to have a look? Here is a house, at the edge of the stream.

All sorts of people are having a dip in the stream: children, youths, parents, grandparents. The air is festive and languid at the same time.

Want to see a cozy cottage? (Ira Gershwin wrote “cunning cottage.”)

How about a splash of flowers?

Could you dig a mountain range?

• At a restaurant, there is a wonderful young man, I don’t know where from, taking a reservation. I love what he says: “How much people? How much clock?”

• At a luncheon, I see a woman I haven’t seen in a few years. I say to her, “I was thinking about you just last night.” (True.) She says to me, quick as a flash, “What about all the other nights?” Gotta be fast, to keep up with her.

Thanks for keeping up with me, y’all. I’ll see you tomorrow for Part III.

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