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celibidache conducting

Sergiu Celibidache has become a cult conductor. Perhaps it is because he had a reputation for playing music slower than anyone else. Perhaps it was because he despised recording and refused to authorize CD releases even of his live performances. Perhaps it was because he required of his orchestra unending rehearsals before performance.

The Romanian-born maestro died at the age of 84 in 1996, having left behind a very few studio recordings but a trove of taped concerts, never meant for public release. Eventually, many were released on the Deutsche Grammophon and EMI labels. Those who have heard them either love them distractedly or despise them profoundly. Few are left indifferent.

It took me a while to jump on the Celibidache bandwagon.

I first made his acquaintance with an EMI recording of the Beethoven Eroica Symphony, which he took at the speed of rush-hour traffic. It is a lugubrious affair. Admittedly, he found a great deal of sonorous sheen in the music but little of the fire that we go to Beethoven for.

Celibidache’s stated aims were to make his orchestra sound “beautiful” playing the music, which, as far as Beethoven goes, is fairly irrelevant.

Celi, as he was called, originally replaced Wilhelm Furtwangler as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic after World War II (and a short reign by the unfortunate Leo Borchard), when Furtwangler was under suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer. Celi lasted until 1952, when Furtwangler, cleared of the charges, took back the baton.

Celibidache was influenced not only by the conductors he trained with, but by a lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism, which reinforced his conviction that music exists only in the moment of its creation, and that recordings cannot capture the electricity of live performance. This was not just a question of technology, but of spirituality. Live music, for Celi, had a spiritual significance, making recordings something close to blasphemy.

It’s hard for me to know if this is true or not. I never heard Celibidache live. I have only the recordings, and most of them are frustrating at best. His tendency to play slowly, and his insistence on the surface sheen of the music, achieved through endless rehearsals, means his performances often lack much in the way of forward drive, and for most of them, any sense that the music might have any deeper meaning than its erotic surface. His Beethoven, in particular, feels neutered.

Yet, it turns out, Celibidache has the measure of at least one composer: Anton Bruckner. And has that measure as no other conductor has. Like Bernstein and Mahler, Celibidache and Bruckner seem to be soulmates. celibidache bruckner 4 cd

Because so many reviewers were raving about Celi’s Bruckner, I bought his EMI Bruckner Fourth on spec. It is a nearly 80-minute Fourth, longer by nearly 20 minutes than even that of Otto Klemperer, a notoriously slow conductor. It absolutely knocked me catawampus.

Bruckner is a composer one comes to late in life. A young man simply will not have the patience for it. The “tunes” are not particularly memorable, and the structure of the symphonies will seem, at a young age, desultory and aimless.

But the problem is that we expect from youth that our music will “go” somewhere, give us some good tunes in the meantime, and surprise us with interesting turns. That pretty well sums up Beethoven.

But Bruckner doesn’t do that, and many poor performances of Bruckner try to make him do that. Instead, Celibidache — and a handful of other great Bruckner conductors — recognizes Bruckner is not a journey, but a place: You enter into his sound world as you enter into a deep forest or a Gothic cathedral and you experience that world in all its corners and cavities.

It is possible to play music very slowly and merely make it dull. Lots of conductors do it in the post-Bernstein era. But it is also possible to do it and keep every musician in the orchestra on the edge of his seat, concentrating fully on every single note as if he were defusing a bomb. This is what Celibidache does with Bruckner. You come away from a performance drained completely. It is an expedition through a sound-universe and you are carrying your own staff and pack.

Such music, played in such a performance, is nearly a religious experience.

You are given a vision of the Burning Bush, the infinite “I am.”

I thought we had long ago left a world that could take a Bruckner without irony. It is that irony that gives Mahler his 20th-century cachet.

But Bruckner gives us a metaphor for the unmediated experience — direct apprehension of the divine. I recognize the irony in my own phrase — and it is the rare musician who can approach the music that way. Just as it is hard to be a true religious believer in an age of irony, so is it difficult to play Bruckner convincingly.

If you have not yet had the pleasure, I recommend to you Celibidache’s EMI Bruckner Fourth. I also recommend his DG Bruckner Eighth, packaged with the Schubert Fifth. It is odd to hear a Schubert B-flat where the slow movement is as long as the other three movements together, but it gives new depth to what has always been a Haydn-ish, breezy symphony. I’m not sure it is appropriate for Schubert, but it is interesting to hear.

As far as the Bruckner Eighth, this is one of the great performances of one of Bruckner’s greatest symphonies — an immense world that seems to extend aurally to the infinite.

I’m probably gushing too much like a schoolgirl, but classical music is supposed to give you a genuine experience, something more than the ordinary, something you will remember for your whole life as a turning point. The Celibidache Bruckner is one of those. Rare, exquisite, raw, profound, strong, lung-shuddering, eye-sobbing. You will feel those Wagner tubas in your sternum, vibrating.

"Peaceable Kingdom" by Edward Hicks

“Peaceable Kingdom” by Edward Hicks

We have a two-party system in this country, but until recent decades, it wasn’t always easy to tell them apart. Southern conservatives tended to be Democrats and Northern liberals were just as likely to be Republicans.

In the old days, the parties were more like clubs, each with a full range of ideologies represented in their membership. When Eisenhower’s name came up for president before the 1952 elections, he could have run comfortably in either party. Sure, the Republicans were a wealthier club and tended to think kindly of big business and leather furniture. Democrats were always a little more scruffy.

”I’ve never been a member of any organized political party,” Will Rogers said. ”I’m a Democrat.”

The current trend, however, is to understand the parties as standing for ideologies.

But what those ideologies are has been harder to pinpoint. After all, the people calling themselves conservatives are no longer for conserving anything. Conservatives used to believe in the status quo; liberals wanted change.

Nowadays, the conservatives are calling for a radical agenda. That is what they used to accuse liberals of wanting.

The problem is that we have defined the two points of view wrongly. They are not merely conservative vs. liberal. In fact, the specific ”litmus test” issues raised by them are fairly recent. Those issues — welfare reform, reduced taxes and prayer in school on the so-called ”conservative” side and gender equity, racial equality and food labeling on the liberal side — are not beliefs held in a vacuum, but represent a deeper difference in how the two sides understand the world.

Underneath the specific issues there are deeper tendencies: Government redress of social inequity and regulation of powerful entities to protect the consumer and environment on the one side and smaller government and individual responsibility on the other.

Those competing world views can best be understood as the view of the lions and that of the lambs.

The lions are in charge of their lives. They do what they want when they want to do it. Food is there for the taking and they are king of all they survey. It is hardly surprising they value initiative.

Lions start businesses and create jobs; they provide leadership.

Ah, but the lambs flock together helplessly, blown about by fortune and foul winds. And they have a worrisome likelihood of becoming someone’s bowl of Cheerios. Initiative doesn’t have much to do with it.

In reality, the world is made up of both lambs and lions, and a sound public policy needs to accept this duality. The problems and arguments arise because Republicans create policy based on their belief that everyone is a lion. Democrats make policy believing that everyone is a lamb.

Neither will make lasting, effective policy beginning from such partial visions of human nature.

You can see the reality of the metaphor in the culture of victimhood that pervades Democratic constituency.

”I can’t succeed because X won’t let me.” Let X stand for white males, poverty, lack of self-esteem, or any of a host of bogeymen.

In each, the victim remains passive, a lamb bleating helplessly.

As for the Republicans, their rhetoric is largely a holdover from Victorian Horatio Alger books, where to be poor is to be lazy, and anyone with gumption can become a millionaire and smoke large, smelly cigars.

Neither world view alone is sufficient and true.

Lions recognize that ”empowerment” doesn’t come from committees, it comes from within. Lambs recognize that if the lion is allowed to have his way, someone will get hurt.

So Republicans hate any law that holds personal initiative in check, even when that initiative may pollute our air or enslave our populace.

And Democrats hate any law that fails to protect the helpless, even when the helpless may not need protecting.

One irony is that although most Republican movers and shakers are in fact lions, many of their constituents are helpless lambs who feel powerful by proxy, growing puff-cheeked in the fantasy of individual freedom and power.

Look at any Klan meeting in the South or any militia in Idaho and you will see a flock of losers strutting their stuff.

Concomitantly, although Democrats act as if everyone were a lamb, the party leadership is almost wholly made up of lions. At some level, they must recognize this disparity.

Nancy Pelosi doesn’t need welfare.

A lot of vitriol is thrown in the mistaken belief that Republicans or Democrats are the Great Satan who either oppresses the little guy or constrains our initiative.

As English poet William Blake would have it, “One law for the lion and the ox is oppression.”

In fact, the balance of carnivore and herbivore is a sign of ecological health.

Without a certain amount of regulation, we would have no air to breathe and no water to drink. With no regulation, what you get is Bhopal, Minimata and Chernobyl.

But too much regulation and you get a nation of faceless bureaucrats.

It is the nature of politics, as that of animals, to find its balance precariously and fitfully.

fighting for peace 1950

Politics and art; oil and water; Mitch McConnell and charisma.

Like alternate universes, the oppositions seem utterly irreconcilable.

”The only thing poetry and politics have in common are the letters P and O,” the late poet Joseph Brodsky once quipped.

Yet, there are clearly many cases of political art. Much of the world’s greatest art, from the Antigone to Angels in America, has concerned politics.

So when I say art and politics are death to each other, what I mean is not politics as a subject — anything in life is fit subject for art — but politics as a lens, as dictator of what is permissible. If you have a political ax to grind, don’t try hacking tree stumps with it, hoping to make a masterpiece.

Another way of looking at it is that there are two types of political art.

The good and the bad.

If you are politically inclined, good political art is art that advances your ideology, and bad art is anything else. This was the inspiration for most Socialist Realism, and it’s making a comeback in a raft of forgettable politically correct art and theater.

But if you are aesthetically inclined, the good and bad are not defined by ideology but by aesthetic persuasiveness. Does the work ring true?

Politics itself can be seen as two separate, almost incompatible things. On the basic level, politics is the acquisition and use of power. It is a basic characteristic of humanity. Politics on this level can be used for ill or good. It is not a thing about which a value judgment can be made. Like gravity, it just is.

But to too many people, ”politics” means political theory. It means not the way things are, but the way things should be. Life should be more fair, the aristocracy should rule, power to the people, a flat tax will solve all ills. Name your poison. human pyramid

When American politics works as it is supposed to, factions promote their causes and compromise is reached. The result is a continuous tension of interests, like a human pyramid in the circus.

But when ideology takes over, compromise is seen as an evil. Through the ideological lens, there is only one truth and everything else will lead to ruin. This is equally the case with Marxists and the Christian right.

”One law, one God, one king,” as William Blake has it. You are either with us or against us.

So, lost in the discussion is the fact that when we say something is ”political art,” we mean two very different things. On one side, there is partisan art, which takes a political stand and uses the art to proselytize. It is the art of the street theater, meant to persuade — although more often than not, its audience has already signed on, so its purpose really is to reinforce beliefs already held. socialist realism

At its worst, partisan art is Nazi and Soviet propaganda; at its best, it is Brecht. Always, it is didactic, and more often than not, it is forgotten by the following year. Name a Socialist Realist painter, I challenge you.

But art may approach political questions from another direction:

There is an art that is interested in the ironies and passions of politics, in its human toll, not its theories.

Partisan art is interested in answers, certainty and action; the other direction is interested in questions, ambiguity and contemplation.

The problem is that ideology is system, and systems are dehumanizing. It matters not whether it is left- or right-wing. The machine is supreme: We measure success not in human terms, but by whether it adheres to theory. Read any Marxist criticism and you will see such. Or listen to a House Republican talking about the National Endowment for the Arts.

In both cases, the question is whether the art is orthodox — does it adhere to the party line.

It is a mark of critic John Berger’s intelligence that his Marxist theory inevitably leads to gibberish and double talk. He must wind up saying something patently silly or else he must ultimately abandon the theory.

People simply do not act the way Marxist theoreticians say they do; neither do they act the way capitalist theoreticians say. Humans are much more complex, much more contradictory.

No, art, if it is to last, must concern itself with the human, not the system.

Goya’s Disasters of War, Picasso’s Guernica, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, even Homer’s Iliad, all approach political questions from a human point of view.

So do Citizen Kane and Oliver Stone’s Nixon. And so does Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror. It does not take a stand on one side or the other; rather, it allows each side to say its piece, incompatible as those sides may be.

Such art examines the possibilities and tests them against the human heart.

Such art is dedicated to this one human truth: There is always a larger context.

Compare Maria Irene Fornes’ A Conduct of Life with Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden. The first deals with the rape of a 12-year-old girl; it knows who the villains are and what we should think of them, and it tells us in no uncertain terms.

Death and the Maiden, about a woman brutally tortured under a South American military regime, is much more equivocal. We are never quite sure whether the man she accuses of carrying out the torture is guilty or innocent, and we surely find that the woman’s revenge on him is brutal in return. There is blame to go around.

As W.H. Auden wrote, ”Those to whom evil is done do evil in return.”

Or Barbara Garson’s MacBird, which lampooned Lyndon Johnson as a Macbeth who killed his Kennedy/Duncan for his own political ends. It is a sour-toned comedy and nearly forgotten except by graduate students with theses to complete.

And that brings up another reason the narrow partisan art dies such a stiff death. Its concerns are almost always so transitory. Does MacBird still have meaning 45 years after the events it describes?

Nothing is more dated than a superannuated political idea. We’ve moved on; we have our own problems, thank you.

Compare that with Citizen Kane, which is equally a hatchet job on a public figure. But because filmmaker Orson Welles concentrates on the human rather than the partisan, it still contains meaning, still has that resonance which is the ultimate test of a work of art.

Egerton 737  f.1

The writer was asked to speak to a creative writing class about what he does. He feels uncomfortable, because he does not much think about what he does; instead, he does it. For more than three decades, he’s been doing it.

But, because he was asked so nicely by the teacher of the class, he agreed to try to explain what he does. 

So, he gets up in front of the class of college-age students, each of whom probably intends to be the next Hemingway, or maybe the next Perez Hilton: It’s hard to know nowadays. 

He speaks:

I was flattered to be asked to speak to you, but I’m not really sure why you asked me, because I really don’t think that I am a very good writer. I am certainly a writer; I get paid for it. But, I’m certainly not a normal writer. I can name a dozen people at my newspaper, for instance, that I admire for being able to accept an assignment, do all the research and distill it into a readable and entertaining article.

I can’t do that, or at least not very well.

On the other hand, I must admit, I don’t find myself reading those stories all that often. I’m simply not that interested in what this week’s celebrity has to say about the vegan diet, or why red suspenders are making a comeback in men’s haberdashery. I’m proud to be a journalist, but I’m not really a journalist.

That could be said for a lot of people these days, especially those writing blogs online. Have you tried reading most of that stuff? It’s like trying to eat an old mattress. Indigestible, self-serving, and just outright bad writing. I don’t really care whether you like boiled eggs or not, and why do you think I care?

But in preparation for coming here, I did some thinking about what makes good writing. Or at least, what makes the kind of writing I want to read and the kind I attempt to do.

And the bottom line is this: What makes good writing is having something to say.

The world is full of “hired guns,” who can turn out PR with the surface lubricity of an eel. The world of journalism is full of such writing: Reporters gather their information, marshal it into rank and file and parade it past the reader in perfect order.

Such writing is found by the car load in the bottoms of parakeet cages.

And blogging has turned instead into public journal keeping, as if we needed to know your every movement. There are some great blogs out there (my favorite is “Think Denk” by pianist Jeremy Denk, who is about the best music writer out there. It is often comic, but it has substance, too. He says real things about the music). But the majority of blog writing is a waste of server space.

Writing that matters — and I cannot see why one would want to write otherwise — writing that matters happens when the writer has something to say, something he cares about, something he knows about.

And I don’t mean, knows about in the sense of having learned a few facts, but I mean knows about, the way you know how to ride a bicycle or the way you know how it feels when you’ve dug a garden: The feeling in the bone, under the muscle. That is knowledge. The population of the Detroit metro area is mere fact. The experience of living in Detroit is knowledge.

And then you must have the missionary zeal to want to broadcast this knowledge.

This needn’t be a soapbox that I’m talking about. Novelists of worth burn to tell us what it feels like to be alive.

But without the need to say something, you have journalism, you have blog-blather.

This is a problem not only in writing. I am an art critic by trade and I see it constantly in galleries: Someone has decided for whatever misguided reason that he or she wants to be an artist. So he learns how to make a painting and creates an art that looks just like art, feels just like art, but isn’t art, it is only the imitation of the way art looks.

The drive in such cases is not to say something but to be recognized as an artist, to be acknowledged as being a member of a certain job description. It is a bureaucratic ambition.

A child in the first grade, for instance, has no interest in being the next Picasso. The fame of art, the sex, the openings, the white wine — these simply aren’t why he makes art.

No, he has been given a bunny rabbit to hold and his eyes light up. The rabbit “kisses” his nose, he feels the fur under his fingers and he simply bursts with the need to express what he has experienced. You put paper and paint in front of him and he will find his “adequate means of expression.”

That phrase, from art education pioneer Viktor Lowenfeld, describes for me what good writing is.

Viktor Lowenfeld

Viktor Lowenfeld

You are burning to say something and you will find the best way possible to say it: its adequate means of expression.

The contrast is the writer who churns out news stories or magazine articles not because he has something to say, but because he thinks it would be neat to make a career out of being a writer.

That’s not to deny there can be a certain romance about being a writer. The exotic myth of downing gin with Hemingway or having sex with the jeunes filles of Paris with Henry Miller. “I admire such and such a person, so I want to be like him. He writes, so it must be cool.”

But Hemingway or Miller were not journalists. They wrote because they had something they were burning to say.

There is a related problem, which is the belief that writing is  somehow different from thinking, that writing is the clothing of thought. It is not, it is the thought itself.

Writing isn’t something applied to a subject, like peanut butter on a slice of bread. It is not how you express thinking: It is thinking.

One cannot think through a subject, come to a conclusion and then say, “Well, now, I guess I’ll write it down.”

No, the writing is how you find out what you think; it is how you come to a conclusion. It is also why you rewrite. If you don’t rewrite, you haven’t done your job: You always write and rewrite, think and rethink.

And again, style is not a fancy evening dress with sequins you put on before going to the dance: Style is that adequate means of expression and it flows naturally from your personality and your way of thinking.

Style is the sum total of your faults, is how Hemingway put it. It’s not your goal, it’s an accident you cannot prevent.

But today, more and more people, the result of years of reality TV and fashion magazines, believe style is the reason you’re in the business to begin with.

It is not. Style is the death of art, it is the death of writing.

You must be as direct as you can be, without distorting what you need to say.

If what you need to say is baroque, the style will naturally be baroque, also. If what you have to say is sophomoric, the style will follow suit.

There are things to look out for and chief among them is formula:

Journalism is full of formulas and many writers use nothing but. But good writing is always done fresh, from the ground up, each time. When you start doing formulas is when you know you are burned out and need a career change.

Each subject must generate its own form; it suggests what is important, what should be left out. There are writers who complain that  this is reinventing the wheel and my only answer is that it is vitally important that we do reinvent the wheel.

It is only when I invent the wheel for myself, and not borrow someone else’s wheel, that I understand the wheel.

To the extent that you use someone else’s words, or someone else’s form, to that extent, you don’t know what you are talking about.

And finally, I must say something about that old writers’ canard: Write what you know. I recall some great writer — I think it was John Updike — saying on the contrary: Write what you don’t know.

My synthesis of the two dicta is this: Write what you know about, but always on the level of what you don’t know. In other words: I write about art because I know something about art. But I try to write about art I don’t yet understand. Through writing about it, I come to understand it.

One should always work at the limits of your ability, at the edge of your knowledge. Writing only what you are thoroughly familiar with will make for academic writing. Writing only what you know nothing about at all will lead to saying really dumb things.

But take what you already know best and seek out the far corners of that universe and explore.

Then you will really have something to say.

darrylstrawberry

I once met Darryl Strawberry before he was Darryl Strawberry. That’s not technically true — even when I met him and he was a rookie outfielder for the Triple-A Tidewater Tides of Norfolk, Va., he had an aura of superstardom about him. He may have hit .235, but he had the glow. He was Darryl Strawberry.

Still, the meeting was awkwardly unsatisfactory. It always is when we meet someone famous. Before the game, Strawberry sat in a corridor at the stadium at a card table piled high with programs. He was there to sign them for the fans. It is a standard practice, and he showed neither enthusiasm nor disdain for the process. lucy ricardo

He smiled, signed the program, or the glove that the kids offered him, and said things like, ”Hi, glad to see you. Enjoy the game.”

Meeting a celebrity seems attractive at first, when you think you will get a chance to rub up against something bigger and greater than everyday life. But it never works out that way. What happens is that you shake hands with a goofy smile on your face, you say something like, ”I’m so happy to meet you. I’m your biggest fan.” And then you realize you are an idiot. It’s the Lucy Ricardo syndrome.

But what else is there to say? It isn’t as if you will discover some secret you have in common: ”Oh, Mr. Redford, you own a Pacer, too? Great car, isn’t it?”

Or that the bonds of friendship will open up: ”Sure, Ms. Taylor, I’d love to join you and Michael Jackson for dinner.”

Meeting a celebrity is a dead end.

AN INARTICULATE DUMB-SHOW

I think I first learned this when I was in sixth grade. New York Yankee first-baseman Moose Skowron came to visit our Boy Scout troop one night. What I saw was a very large man with a permanent smile standing like an oak among the shrubbery of adoring Little Leaguers. They all wanted to talk to Skowron, but they didn’t have anything to say to him.

And, of course, he didn’t have anything to say to them, either. What was supposed to be a treat for the kids turned into an inarticulate dumb-show.

Later in life, I have come across various celebrities and semi-celebrities, and the result is invariably the same.

When I was unofficial staff photographer for the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, N.C., I was sent to the airport to pick up world-famous cellist Leonard Rose, who was going to give master classes. I carried his bags, put them in the trunk of the car — he carried his cello — and I drove him to his hotel. He sat as silent as a pumpkin for the entire ride.

What was I going to say — ”I love your Dvorak, but don’t you think a looser vibrato would add some warmth to the second movement?” Yeah, right.

USING EACH OTHER FOR MUTUAL GAIN 

It is all very different as a journalist, doing interviews.

In such cases, the celebrity does a well-rehearsed dance with the journalist. We have something to talk about — the upcoming book, play or concert. And the celebrity usually reiterates the best lines and choicest anecdotes from previous interviews. When you are lucky, something new, deeper or more genuine pops out. teller

But you haven’t really met the celebrity, you have used each other for your mutual gain.

Occasionally, the interview goes somewhere odd: When talking to the silent half of Penn and Teller recently, we got off on a long conversation about the difficulty of translating Virgil’s Aeneid. Teller is a former Latin teacher, though you would never know from their act that either of them can even read.

And even in an interview, Lucy isn’t always far away. Once, when interviewing Tom Seaver, I wound up asking for his autograph, and, what is worse, it was ”for a friend.” It really was. But I felt like a dweeb anyway.

I have made it a general rule of conduct never to bother a celebrity if we chance to come in contact. If I see Alice Cooper at a string-quartet concert, I leave him alone. If I see Hugh Downs forking pasta at a restaurant, I won’t even look his way.

What would be the use? Celebrity is a sort of wall around certain people, constructed of a palisade of smiling teeth.

hogarth color half

The two people sitting next to us at the opera were Rowlandson caricatures.

She was mid-60ish, tarted up in black lace, false lashes and a push-up bra. He was roughly the same age but grotesquely obese, with a beach-ball belly that shined shirt-white from the bottom of his vest to the top of his trousers. His belt was lost to sight under the roll of gut.

Worse, stale cigarette fumes soaked out of every fiber of his suit.

The two had arrived late; the lights already had dimmed for La Boheme, but the music hadn’t begun. The two tripped their way over toes and bounced off knees along the row.

It is all too common a sight at the symphony or opera. The wife drags the businessman husband out for a night of culture. He usually falls asleep by the third movement or second act.

Only this husband’s cough kept him awake. This wasn’t the polite, dry ”ahem” in the throat that is universal ambient noise at a concert. It was a huge, wretching, sputum-gargling chest-cough that boiled over every 30 seconds or so for the first two acts.

Between the noisome miasma of tobacco and the noisy expectoration of gooey bronchi, I came to loathe this man. He was ruining Puccini. angry audience copy

At each intermission, the two left the hall, coming back with a renewed halo of smoke.

By the third act, the man began another obnoxious behavior that normally makes me fume: He began singing along, under his breath. Normally, I say, but strangely not this time. Instead, I found his singing curiously touching. Philistine or no, his humming told me he was making a connection with the music.

It also became obvious that he knew the opera quite well and that, in fact, he had it memorized.

It also amused me that it was only Mimi’s part that he sang, and it made me wonder about him. Perhaps he identified with Mimi, perhaps he loved deeply, perhaps he was dying, perhaps he dressed up in women’s clothes at home.

Whatever it was, it made me like him, in an odd, repellent sort of way.

When the drama was over and Mimi was dead and resurrected for applause, I could hear him critique the performance for his wife, ranking it among the Bohemes he had heard, pointing out its strengths and its failings (every opera production has both). It was a crudely objective- sounding set of judgments he pronounced, like the faux-scholarly recording reviews in Fanfare.

And I realized that for many men, this passing of judgment is their way of admitting they were moved.

And he became all the more human to me for that.

Among the morals in this parable is that everyone finds sustenance in art. My tussive businessman may not care a whit for Picasso or Brecht, but this Puccini lit his candle. Another may despise Puccini and find life’s breath in Thomas Mann or Jimi Hendrix. It even may be found for some in black velvet Elvis paintings.

It is not the particulars that count, but that there is something in art that is needed to sustain human life.

Panamint Valleybw

You know you are a devoted traveler — or a complete idiot — when you go to Death Valley in July. No mere vacationer or tourist would risk it.

But it is the only way to get the genuine Death Valley experience. After all, a cool, refreshing wintertime Death Valley isn’t really Death Valley at all.

No, the real deal is baking hot and glaring with sunlight. The air shimmers, as if uncertain on its feet and about to faint.

That’s the way I first saw it, about 15 years ago in a car with no air-conditioning. It’s the only way to go.

Since then, I’ve been back many times, and always in midsummer. Death Valley National Monument is one of the wonders of the world, and it will disabuse you of any notion that nature is a comfortable place or that wilderness should be equated with warm, furry animals with big brown eyes.

Even before reaching the National Monument, I was astonished by Nevada. The road north from Las Vegas passed the Sheep, Spotted and Pintwater ranges, and bordered the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, though it doesn’t look like the land could support any wildlife aside from sidewinders and scorpions. Zabriskie Point

I passed the Joshua trees in the flatlands of the Nellis Bombing and Gunnery Range. The armed forces have used Nevada to test weapons, though how they can interpret the results, I’ll never know. How can a bomb crater look much different from a soda wash?

The names of places in the area are trying to tell you something: Coffin Peak, Ash Springs, Last Chance Range, Valley of Fire State Park, Furnace Creek, Chloride Cliff — each geographic name serves as a warning sign.

The heat, as I descended the Funeral Mountains past Corkscrew Peak, rose even higher. At Stovepipe Wells in the center of Death Valley, the air temperature was more than 120 degrees and the ground was cooked to 150. The average high temperature in July is 116 degrees, and the highest ever recorded was 134 — on July 10, 1913, the highest temperature ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere, just over 100 years ago. That is serious heat.

The air rushing in through the open car window could have roasted a Christmas goose. It was literally like the blast of heat you get when your face is too close to the oven door when you open it. It singed my eyebrows. badwaterroad deathvalley

In Death Valley in July, you are alone in an area 1 1/2 times the size of Delaware, and all you can see are baked rock and the laser beam of sunlight. If you falter, no one is there to rescue you. And there are no Circle-Ks, no Slurpees, and most of all, no shade.

At a rest stop, I picked up a park brochure titled ”How to Survive Your Trip Through Death Valley.” And they weren’t kidding.

Even at rest in the shade, the brochure said, you can perspire away a quart of water in an hour. It admonished me to drink water frequently.

I had been getting a headache; I thought it was from driving hundreds of miles, but the brochure said it was more likely the first stage of heatstroke and I should down great quantities of water. I drank a half-gallon immediately and began to feel better. By noon, I had drunk well more than a gallon. Strangely, no matter how much I drank, I never needed to pee.

The high point of any trip to Death Valley has to be the lowest point: Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level — another record for the hemisphere.

From your car, you look out on a vast sea of blinding white. You might mistake it for snow, but a closer look shows you the spiky, lacerating surface of evaporated salts, like the pavement of Hades. If you walk across it, it crunches under your boot sole like plaster, which it very nearly is.

Road to Dante's View

Road to Dante’s View

But the best vantage point on Badwater is more than a mile directly above it. Dante’s View is a scenic overlook on the crest of the Black Mountains at the end of a 12-mile road. It gives you a panoramic vista of Death Valley and its surrounding mountains, the Amargosas and Panamints. The flat basin stretches 100 miles north to south below you, glistening with the white of the salt pan.

You can see it over the shoulder of a soaring vulture a thousand feet below you, wondering what it will find to eat, and knowing it could have been you.

There are many roads through the park, but, for mortification of the flesh, none beats the West Side Road, a gravel route designed by Torquemada.

I love to drive my little sedan where sensible people fear to take their Range Rovers.

I’ve driven through dust, sand and slop, spinning my wheels and sliding back and forth through icy clay and spitting gravel. I always come prepared with a military-surplus entrenching tool and a Hudson Bay ax, though I have only had to use them twice. Once was on a dirt road near Dynamite Road in north Scottsdale, Ariz., as I got caught in the deep sand of a stream bed and had to dig the car out. In fact, I had to dig until I hit bedrock before I could muster any traction.

The second time was on the Navajo Reservation after a rain when the wheels sprayed so much mud on my running board that the Toyota weighed a good 50 percent more than it did when it came fully equipped from the factory. I had to use the ax to hack off layers of mudpack. I couldn’t get it all, and by the time I got back home, the remaining layer had so dried that it took a pneumatic drill to peel off the stucco. The whole thing looked like a gigantic corn dog with windshield wipers.

So, the thought of going down West Side Road had a certain martyrish appeal.

I packed a picnic lunch at Furnace Creek and headed south to the 36-mile West Side Road that would take me along the western edge of the valley. It is a hypocrite of a road: As you leave the solid pavement of Calif. 178, the gravel looks well graded and flat. Don’t believe it.westsideroad1

It turned out to be the worst piece of washboard driving I’ve ever suffered through. Usually, you can either slow down or speed up and escape the resonance of the corrugation, but not here. No matter how fast or how slow I drove, my teeth turned into castanets.

Every mile or so, there would come a smooth spot, just long enough to delude me into believing the rough part was over and dissuade me from turning back. But in a hundred yards, the bumping would begin again in earnest.

In fact, the rattle was so bad, it turned my pint of milk into butter. And when I stopped to make my sandwich, the bread had had the leavening shook out of it. So I buttered my matzoh and when I reached for my bottle of water, the vibration had turned it into seltzer. I received the benefit of sparkling water without having to pay the premium National Park price for Perrier.

There were several sights on the way, including the ruins of an old Borax works, which were now nothing more than a few mounds of dirt covering the archeology. The road flirted with the foothills of the Panamint range and every so often, a subsidiary road would head out perpendicular into the mountains. Most warned that they were recommended only for 4-wheel drive.devilsgolfcoursedeathvalley

They would have had to be better driving than the road I was on.

And the worst was the last bit of it. As I could see on the horizon the junction of my road with the main, smooth, paved road, the corrugation took a turn for the nasty.

The last bit looked especially smooth; it was white dust and gravel and promised a change from the rattle-bone right of way, but in fact, it was the worst lie of the day. When I got to that part, it was the equivalent of a speed bump every eight inches for a half mile. I had to take it in first gear.

When I finally made it back to the pavement, I made a solemn promise to the Toyota that I would not venture out onto the gravel again for the duration of the trip. The car had made it through with its only damage being a dangling muffler.

It took me a good half hour of driving into Nevada before my eyesight regained control of its vertical hold.