Today, while much of the world has its attention turned eastward toward China, I made a brief cultural excursion in the other direction, to Europe.
I’m talking about Salzburg, Austria, home of Mozart and of the tradition-filled Salzburg Festival that takes place every summer. No, I didn’t actually physically go Austria—like most of you reading this I’m in New York and likely won’t be heading to Europe until the dollar-to-euro exchange improves from its abysmal $1.49. I am experiencing Salzburg via recording, gorging on the delicacies offered on a new Mozart gala DVD of that city’s 250th-birthday celebrations from 2006, which were broadcast on PBS in September 2006 . Unlike New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival this year, many of whose thrills—like Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone—are not provided by Wolfgang Amadeus, Salzburg’s tribute two summers ago was Mozart, from start to finish. So I was looking forward to the ur-Mozart aspect of the event, and the fact that many great Mozart singers love to perform there. And I was not disappointed. But …
As the orchestra began the overture to Don Giovanni, something looked odd. I could not spot a single woman in the orchestra. I patiently waited for the alternate camera angle that would reveal a female violist or violinist or flutist, but it never happened. Strange. We’ve gotten so used to women as a significant presence in American orchestras—even on the podium—that this absence is truly jarring. With the market flooded everywhere with highly qualified musicians, it seems you’d have to go well out of your way NOT to have a woman in the ranks.
Despite this puzzlement, there’s a lot to savor on this recording. Against a backdrop of solidly suited men playing instruments, led by the young conductor Daniel Harding, a very starry procession of singers parade on and off the stage, providing an excellent evening of you-were-almost-there light fun. There’s the seductive bass René Pape, raising an eyebrow during Leporello’s catalog aria, which interestingly talks about “Women of every rank, every shape, every age,” which so obviously was not the case during this gala evening, except for the divas. And there’s the tenor Michael Schade, with his super-lyrical tenor shown to moving effect in Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” and slightly less comfortably as Tito in the faster-moving “Se all’impero, amici Dei” from La Clemenza di Tito. Then there’s the sassy, slightly bug-eyed redhead Patricia Petibon, passing over the figuration in Aspasia’s “Nel grave tormento” from Mitridate like a stone skipping over water. Interestingly, American baritone Thomas Hampson, who sings Guglielmo’s “Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo” from Cosi fan tutte, looks the most at home in the theater; he is treated like a native son in Salzburg. The glamorous, blond mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena has just the right weight voice for Mozart, though in closeup she often looks as if she’s just tasted a bite of bad tuna fish; and soprano Ekaterina Siurina, a new voice to me, hits it out of the park in her aria (Ilia’s “Se il padre perdei”) and in her duet with Kozena, “S’io non moro a questi accenti,” both from Idomeneo. Finally, the diva of divas, Anna Netrebko, wearing a strapless blue gown and heavy sparkly eye makeup, ends the vocal part of the evening with a fiery “D’Oreste, d’Aiace” that predictably brings down the house.
But I’m still puzzling over that all-male orchestra. Coincidentally, today I just got a copy of a new book by oboist Laila Storch, about her teacher and mentor, the legendary Marcel Tabuteau. (The word “legendary” is so often overused, but if anyone deserves it, Tabuteau does—he is the catalyst behind the American school of oboe playing as we now know it.) It tells the story of how Storch desperately wanted to study oboe at the Curtis Institute with Tabuteau, in the days when there were only a few conservatories where you could get the level of musical training she was after. Storch was discouraged from auditioning by Tabuteau, who openly expressed no interest in teaching female oboists, despite Curtis’s open-door policy. But he agreed to hear her. With his regrets, he told her he would not accept her, despite an audition that lasted longer than most of the other auditioners for the one spot that year. Then, during World War II suddenly she received a telegram saying a place had opened up—a life-changing event. Storch became a lifelong disciple and has written a book that appears to be chock full of stories, anecdotes and information about an important period in our country’s music history.
Photo of Anna Netrebko by Johannes Ifkovits