European Diary

An Aix to Grind

As though in memory of those antediluvian Playboy “pictorials” in which the hapless young lady posed with whatever attribute of her metier the photographer had unearthed in the props room—an alleged student of architecture with a carpenter’s wooden compass, a presumed graduate of the police academy with a sheriff’s badge, a putative nurse with a stethoscope—on concert-hall posters the conductor is photographed with his baton.  Raised aloft and signifying—significance.

To be sure, Hugh Hefner did not invent symbolism.  From cave painting to Christian iconography and all the way down to Envy, Yuri Olesha’s immortal novella of 1928, where an iconic old-world object—the pillow—stands for the “conspiracy of feelings” that the new world is intent on suppressing, visual images, “pregnant with latent meaning,” have stood for all the larger, “relatively unknown things,” as Jung puts it, “that cannot be represented more clearly or characteristically.”  But while the Cro-Magnon shaman knew that a zigzag scratch on his cave wall represented the mystery of water, nobody knows what the conductor’s upraised baton means.

Ennio Nicotra, a Sicilian friend of mine, was an aspiring conductor when he first heard of a man by the name of Ilya Musin (1903-99), then the resident guru at the Leningrad...

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