Monday, March 30, 2009

Reading Said


The more I read Said, the more I miss him. Granted, there is more opera in here than I care about, but lots of Bach, and a number of pieces on Glenn Gould and his impact. And I now need to go listen to a lot more Richard Strauss, I think. Said is particularly good on the culture of modern music-making, and has considerable discussion of pianists and the performances here. He's not shy about who he likes and doesn't like, either--although that's a bit of an over-simplification. It's more an issue of who continues to grow as a musician, and who does not. Said is particularly vituperative towards the the Metropolitan Opera, but manages to be quite funny about it. If I were an opera lover, I would probably have shared Said's contempt for the Met's limited mid-nineteenth century worldview.

This is a collection of his musical reviews that appeared in The Nation over two decades, and in and of themselves are a joy to read and ponder. Taken in the broader context of Said's total outlput--which was primariy political and literary--one realizes the extent of his erudtion, and his intelligence, and his simple good judgment. Music was clearly a passion, and Said makes it amost contagious. The chapter on his friendship with Daniel Barenboim is particularly affecting, as it is the only one in which he mentions the cancer that was to shortly kill him. Said was all-encompassing, or at least it seems that way. Who is there to replace him these days--who whas the intellectual and artistic breadth? Updike is gone recently, and while I found Updike a bit too facile at times, he did share a broad range of enthusiasms as well, particularly the visual arts, on which he could be quite penetrating. Guy Davenport could straddle many geographies as well, more brilliantly perhaps than anyone of the past three or four decades, and he's gone too. There's Daniel Mendelsohn, and that seems to be about it at the moment, and he's more in the New York Jewish cultural and literary tradition than any of the others, and he's pretty good on literature and culture and, yes, music (but again, lots of opera!), but it's not yet clear that he has the breadth of a Said or a Davenport yet--we can only hope. (Mendelsohn did have the good sense to be unimpressed with Oryx and Crake, my current touchstone for literary pretensions, but still managed a multi-page review in the New York Review of Books. Davenport probably would have loathed it for the claptrap it was, and dismissed it in a paragraph.)

I expect Said will outlast many of his critics (whose criticisnm, I suspect, is mostly politcally based anyway). Barenboim is helping to keep his legacy alive with theh West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which Said and Baernboim founded nearly a decade ago, and which continues to tour worldwide. It's perhaps the apotheosis of Said as he emerges through his writings--discriminating and demanding a first-class intellect should be, underpinned at bottom by an endless generosity of spirit.

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