Salzburg, Austria — The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is the resident band of the Salzburg Festival. It spends most of its time in the opera pit. But it gets out onstage now and then, for a concert. One Saturday night, the VPO was led by Zubin Mehta, the famed, veteran conductor.
He is 80. Is that possible? That’s what the calendar says. He moves more slowly than before, as he emerges from the wings, and returns to them. But there’s still an air of glamour about him. Even of danger. Handsome devil.
Two seasons ago, I heard him in New York, with this same orchestra. Lord, was he dull. He barely rose above the level of phoning it in. Donald Trump sometimes phones in his interviews — literally. But he is never dull (for better or worse).
In Salzburg, Mehta was infinitely better than in New York.
His concert in the Great Festival Hall began with a short piece by Arvo Pärt, the Estonian — born in 1935, the year before Mehta. This was Swansong, adapted from a larger work of Pärt’s, Littlemore Tractus, which was composed in honor of the Newman bicentennial: the 200th anniversary of John Henry Newman’s birth. That celebration took place in 2001.
Swansong is gem-like, neatly crafted. It is clear, sweet, sad — and inevitable. It simply unfolds. A conductor does not have to invest it with emotion. The emotion is embedded. Mehta knew this, and brought it forth, or let it be.
Next on the program was a Mahler song-cycle, Kindertotenlieder, or Songs on the Death of Children. The soloist was Matthias Goerne, the German baritone. Usually, this cycle is sung by a woman. But they do not have exclusive control of it.
Goerne showed the goods that have made him famous: an extraordinarily beautiful voice; extraordinarily beautiful German; long, long breaths. He also showed his assortment of stage mannerisms, which include swaying and self-conducting.
For the first few songs, he demonstrated one of his weaknesses: gilding the lily; laying it on thick. He sang line by line, phrase by phrase. He drowned the sense of the whole. Moreover, you could never forget him and his interpreting. He would not get out of the way, to let you hear the music.
But then he did. He found a mental groove — and the songs did their work.
Two years ago, I interviewed Christa Ludwig, the legendary German mezzo-soprano, and one of the foremost exponents of the Kindertotenlieder. She told me something rather surprising. When she was young and childless, she got very emotional in this cycle. One night, in Brussels, she had to leave the stage. “I was crying. I couldn’t sing anymore.” But when she had a child of her own, she had no such problems in the Kindertotenlieder. “I was too sentimental when I didn’t have a child. You have not to be sentimental in Mahler. That’s it. No, because if it is sentimental, it is not right.”
After intermission, Mehta conducted a Bruckner symphony, the Fourth (nicknamed the “Romantic”). He conducted without a score. He has lived with this work for a long, long time. He conducted it with command — a gentle, unobtrusive command. Often, he was relaxed, but not flaccid. And the Vienna players bathed you with their distinct, glowing sound.
At the end, a woman near me let out a gasp — a gasp that indicated, “How can anything be so wonderful?”
Some years ago, I read a writer trying to be hip about Bruckner. He wanted to debunk the traditional view of that composer. With a bit of a sneer, he said, “Bruckner was more than a simple man devoutly writing musical love letters to God.” I thought, “I have never heard a better description of Bruckner symphonies: musical love letters to God.”
I used that very phrase to title a piece of my own about Bruckner — crediting, if that’s the word, that other fellow. Whatever his intentions, he nailed it.
Two nights after the Mehta-VPO concert, the audience filed in to another festival hall: the House for Mozart. Sheep were on the stage. What were they doing there? They turned out to symbolize sacrifice — and not necessarily of the sheeply kind.
Salzburg was presenting a new opera, The Exterminating Angel, by the British composer Thomas Adès. It is based on the 1962 film of the same title. To be most precise, that film is called “El ángel exterminador.” Its director is Luis Buñuel, the Spaniard, who was known for surrealism.
Hence, the story. Guests arrive for a dinner party. After a while, they find they cannot leave the room. They are unable to cross the threshold. Why is unclear, even to them — maybe especially to them. In due course, they get hungry, and mad, and murderous, and other very bad things.
In an interview, Adès said that he saw this movie when he was 13 or 14, and “it stayed with me to the point of obsession.” He was raised in a surrealistic environment, so to speak. His mother, Dawn, is an art historian, with a specialty in surrealism: Buñuel, Dalí, and the rest.
Listening to some passages in her son’s score, I thought, “You can almost hear the clocks melt.”
The libretto is in English, and it was fashioned by Tom Cairns, in collaboration with the composer himself. Cairns is an Irishman known primarily as a director: of theater, TV, movies, and opera. He directed The Exterminating Angel in Salzburg. Adès conducted the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Salzburg Bach Choir, et al. (He is also a good — a very good — pianist, by the way.)
His score is one of extremes: extreme emotions, extreme dynamics, extreme vocal ranges. Adès is steeped in music and its history, and you can hear influences, or possible influences. Prokofiev, for one. Debussy, for another. There is at least one hammer blow, ferocious, à la Mahler. But Adès is his own man.
The music is nervous and nutty. It depicts confusion, degradation, and hallucination. It is on the edge, and over it. The score includes martial music, love music, a ghoulish lullaby — whatever is necessary to tell the awful tale.
I thought of a word often applied to Berlioz: “phantasmagorical.” It also occurred to me that Adès likes to play with death, and is adept at it. Another recent work is Totentanz, or Dance of Death, a kind of cantata for mezzo-soprano, baritone, and orchestra.
Early on in the opera, a character says, “Strange things are happening.” That is an understatement. Later, a bear comes on the scene, and, by that point, this seems practically normal.
At intermission, I ran into a friend of mine, who is an actor in Hollywood. He said, “I can’t help thinking of The Twilight Zone. ‘You are about to enter another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind.’”
What is The Exterminating Angel about, really? I think it’s up to the individual audience member to decide. But my best guess is: mesmerism, helplessness, volition. We are in a mental realm (the twilight zone?). In a thousand ways, people all over the world find it impossible to leave the room. They cannot cross the threshold, even though it’s completely unobstructed. They are self-trapped.
The cast in Salzburg was full of excellent singers, including a couple of British veterans: Sir Thomas Allen and Sir John Tomlinson. They were premiering new music, no doubt, in the 1960s. And they are still doing it, in the 2010s.
I have cited one character. Here is another, remarking on the predicament of herself and the other guests: “I find it highly original. I adore anything that deviates from the norm.” To which another guest replies, “Yes, we’ve all noticed that, Silvia. I don’t like this one bit, but I didn’t say anything because I was too polite.”
Speaking for myself, I would pay good money not to see this opera again. I liked it as much as nightmares. But I recognize its brilliance — and the general brilliance of its composer. Adès can be counted on to write interesting and skillful music, whether it’s for you or me or not.
Later in the same week, not sheep but Yuja Wang occupied the stage of the House for Mozart. The Chinese-born pianist was playing with the Camerata Salzburg, under Lionel Bringuier, a French conductor. She played two works: Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Ravel’s Concerto in G.
Do you know the story about Gershwin and Ravel? The Tin Pan Alley genius telegrams Ravel over in Paris: “Can I take lessons from you?” Ravel wires back, “How much money did you make last year?” Gershwin answers, “A million dollars.” Ravel asks, “Can I take lessons from you?”
Enough of my storytelling. You’ll want to know what Yuja was wearing — for she is famous, or infamous, for skimpy, scandalous outfits. I have long referred to them as “stripper-wear.” The question was, “Will she tone it down for Salzburg?” And the answer was: “Not on your life.”
She came out in an itty-bitty green number, all sparkly. Along with it came high, high heels. Okay, the Rhapsody.
Wang plays this piece well, but not on this night. She missed notes, freely. She improvised, unsuccessfully. She pounded, which is rare for her. In fact, I’m not sure I had ever heard her do it. Worst, she just wasn’t very idiomatic.
After intermission, she returned in a different outfit — same deal, I think, but silver. And she played the Ravel superbly. She was refined, sly, jazzy, French, propulsive — everything. You could argue with her about this or that. I like the long trill at the end of the middle movement slower and sultrier. But this was first-class playing, inarguably.
In an interview two years ago, she said, “I can dress in long skirts when I am 40.” She has eleven years to go. May her Ravel be as good, and her Gershwin match.