Wednesday, March 05, 2008

"The Indispensible Man" plays the worst concert ever

Reading William Kristol's column about William F. Buckley, Jr. ("The Indispensable Man") in Monday's New York Times brought back vivid memories of a visit Buckley paid to the Hudson Valley.

Buckley was well known as a lover of classical music, and once wrote an article for the Times Magazine about his harpsichord studies. I no longer have the concert program, but Buckley's appearance must have occurred at least twenty years ago, when Leon Botstein was conducting a series with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, a smaller group drawn from the HVP which Botstein founded and later abandoned. Buckley appeared with the HVPCO, under Botstein's direction, in a special benefit performance at the Bardavon in Poughkeepsie.

I remember Buckley's parts of the program well. He brought his harpsichord, and attempted to play two movements of Bach's Concerto in D Minor (the second and first, in that order, but not the third). He also played the Bach's Chromatic Fantasia for solo harpsichord, but not its more difficult succeeding fugue.

Seeing the program, I presumed that the missing parts of the music were too difficult for Buckley to play. But all of it was. From the opening measures of the second movement of the Concerto, it was obvious that Buckley couldn't play anything accurately. He had a coach with him, perhaps his teacher, who was pointing to the places in the music where Buckley was trying to play, but Buckley wasn't even close to being able to get all of them. I noted with amusement that he was doing something I've otherwise seen only at low-level student recitals, when a kid has great trouble playing the music, leans forward towards the score and squints, as though if he or she could just see the notes more clearly they would be easier to play. Buckley was doing that, but as always it didn't help. He simply didn't have the technique to play
even the easiest passages of the music. For long stretches, he was literally playing more wrong notes than right ones--and I do mean literally.

This event lives vividly in my memory, because it was, by a comfortable margin, the worst public musical performance I have ever heard.

After an intermission, Buckley returned to narrate "Peter and the Wolf," which he did with his usual air of supercilious patrician pseudo-elegance. Fortunately the audience had very few children in it.

Kristol inadvertently reinforced my feelings about Buckley's devotion to classical music by writing that, on the last night of his life, he and a pianist friend "talked about music and politics and friends, to the accompaniment of a recording of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, Bill's favorite." As if anyone with any appreciation of one of Beethoven's greatest masterpieces could use it as background music!

Buckley's recent death has called forth a variety of tributes to his supposedly positive qualities. But I prefer to remember him as a man who wrote ringing support of racial segregation in his early career, who played the role of aristocrat, and who somehow managed to turn his intellectual dishonesty into a successful career. Buckley was the man who supposedly made conservatism intellectually acceptable, but I suspect this was true only among conservatives. I never bought it.

Leslie Gerber

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home