Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Doomsday Symphony: Chapter 2

In the first installment of The Doomsday Symphony, we learned that Klavdia Klangfarben has taken on the task of killing the Great Composers of the Past for SHMRG, a nefarious music-licensing organization out to take control of the world's classical music industry.

During a recent summer - July, 2010, to be exact - our narrator, Dr. T. Richard Kerr, is off to a summer music festival held in the Poconos of Pennsylvania where he will visit with the son of an old-time friend and mentor of his, the composer Sebastian Crevecoeur. The drive is full of nostalgia, mild trepidation and a bit of mystery.

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Chapter 2
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If it hadn't been for Victor's invitation, I would never have bothered with this concert, the drive and the heat aside. Chopin's E Minor Concerto was, as Sebastian used to put it, "too easily badly played," and the pianist was one I would normally go out of my way to avoid. Still arrogant after all these years, a terror both on and off the stage, Tigramsci-Tulini had long outlived whatever reputation his manager had created, never realizing the potential of his debut. Perhaps that was why he still used publicity photos from twenty years ago. The product of a scheming agent, the former prodigy would occasionally pop up on the regional scene, no longer appearing with the major orchestras in the country, more frequently with the local orchestras in their orbit. Occasionally capable of drawing from their audiences but never convincing their managements to give him a second chance, his career continued spiraling downwards.

This first week of the festival had begun with last night's piano recital – more suitably held in the mansion's ballroom – given by a young woman whose name I was unfamiliar with, winner of some minor competitions but, I was told, a brilliant performer who would take this program to Carnegie's recital hall for her New York debut in October. Her program of Chopin etudes and nocturnes, Barber's Piano Sonata and Schumann's C Major Fantasy was met with less than half a hall. This afternoon's program quickly sold out even though Tigramsci-Tulini was probably half the musician.

This was the fifth season for the Collierville Summer Festival which Victor had helped organize, three weekends of orchestra and chamber music concerts held in the famous Collier Mansion bringing classical music to a rural region that would otherwise have little immediate access to it: even the radio coverage in the area was spotty at best, considering the terrain. No longer home to the great industrial barons of the 19th Century, there were people financially secure enough to ensure its success, but hard times falling harder on some areas than others, that number dwindled steadily.

Next weekend's concerts included the return of the festival's orchestra playing Chopin's Sylphide, Barber's Violin Concerto with another has-been, Ari Urdén, and Mendelssohn's "Italian," hopefully featuring better weather for what they were calling a "mid-summer get-away." There was also a quartet program played by Zoe's New York-based friends, the ones who would be reading through Sebastian's quintet this evening.

The lawn's commanding view of the town and its valley stretched out beneath the hilltop where Peter J. Collier built his imposing mansion, the legacy of an aptly named coal baron, the equivalent of local royalty. Even though the sun had passed onto the house's far side, there were still insufficient breezes to make it feel anything but stifling.

Fortunately for us, Victor reserved seats under a large dogwood tree shading the flagstone patio that opened from the ballroom's bay window. Others stood around the yard's perimeter or close against the house, desperately seeking shade.

Those who braved the center of the lawn stretched out on beach blankets or sat stiffly in assorted varieties of lawn chairs, a few wearing broad-brimmed hats with sun-glasses or tried shading themselves with old-fashioned parasols. It didn't seem to matter where the audience settled, I don't think anybody bothered reading their programs: they just used them as fans.

A low stage had been set up at the far end, pleasantly nestled in a natural amphitheater of yews and boxwoods, with one of those ubiquitous rent-a-center garden-party tents barely covering the musicians' chairs and stands. Most of the grand piano was left exposed should there be a sudden thunderstorm. A white tarp lay folded underneath it, if needed. The concert could be moved to the high school auditorium in case of rain, but there were no provisions against the heat. I tried forgetting the time-and-temperature clock I'd seen a few blocks away, registering 95°.

The pianist's playing was predictably mannered and his mannerisms, annoying. He flexed his fingers, ran his hands through his perfectly coiffed if thinning hair, shook his arms down at his side or fidgeted with the bench during the lengthy orchestral introduction as if what the orchestra was playing was of no interest. When he finally made his entrance, his hands flailed across the keyboard as he threw his head back in virtuosic ecstasy, his eyes staring off into space till I thought perhaps there was a teleprompter hidden in the tent's ceiling. Playing the second theme with such exaggerated sweetness, his nose barely inches above the keyboard, he stretched the tempo all out of proportion. When he practically threw himself backwards off the bench as the orchestra came in with its pompously overblown deceptive cadence at the end of the exposition, it was all I could do not to fall off my chair, laughing.

During the orchestral passages, he ostentatiously wiped the sweat from his brow and neck, then from his hands and wrists – justifiable, in this heat – removing the now wilted bright red sash from around his neck and certainly doubting the wisdom of wearing black leather pants. I expected him to pull a mirror from inside the piano to check his hair, ignoring the good work the orchestra was trying to accomplish, before he got back to showing the audience why he had been hired in the first place: that he could emote with the best of them.

I kept my eyes shut to focus on the music until Victor nudged me. The last movement began with such an unexpected burst of speed, it sounded more like a frenetic chase than a delightful dance. Barely able to navigate, the orchestra panicked into playing everything even faster, no matter how frantically the conductor tried putting on the brakes. Despite some slower, breath-catching contrasting sections, we were soon careening toward a rowdy conclusion, the pianist improvising flourishes on the final chords, the conductor throttling his baton to sustain the beat so they might end together.

The audience, of course, burst into cheers and bravos, most of them jumping immediately to their feet. Tigramsci-Tulini nodded at them, beaming with intense self-satisfaction as he took his bows, as if saying "of course you thought it was the absolute best you'd ever heard: how could you not?" He reached back for the conductor's hand as an afterthought.

Having opened – appropriately enough – with Samuel Barber's Overture to 'The School for Scandal,' we'd cool off to Robert Schumann's "Spring" Symphony, next. Like most people once intermission got underway, we started strolling toward the crowded ballroom. I hadn't bothered looking at a program before the concert started, so I asked to borrow Victor's, wondering who the beleaguered conductor was.

"Rogers Kent-Clarke? I've never heard of him." His bio was typical, offering nothing of substance beyond lists of places he'd conducted or people he'd studied with: the conductor Louis Lane was the only name I'd recognized.

"Did you like him? I don't know where they managed to find him, but the committee said he's a super guy, apparently." Victor picked up little plastic cups of what was probably wine, passing them around.

"Well," I added, looking around for something as simple as water, "it was amazing he could keep up with the soloist at all!'

"You'll get a chance to meet him, I'm afraid. He told me he's planning on coming back to the farmhouse for dinner."

Seeing my sudden alarm, he assured me with a light chuckle he meant Kent-Clarke. "It would probably double Sandro's fee," he sneered, offering me more wine, "if we expected him to do any socializing beyond the concert..."

Victor was casually looking around the room, waving, then pointed out his daughter, Zoe, opposite us in front of a large electric fan, part of a small knot of perspiring musicians standing scarecrow-like, airing out their arm-pits.

Considering one of the mansion's biggest tourist draws was its series of Murder Mystery Weekends, I felt I should keep my mouth shut and comment only about the weather if anyone asked me what I thought. There was no need to end up being counted among the suspects if our soloist should be discovered dead in his dressing room.

Most of the comments I overheard were about the enthusiasm the pianist's speed had generated, as if fast fingers and dazzling excitement, regardless of accuracy or musical expression, were the truest marks of a great musician.

Before they realized, I overheard Zoe's friends saying "what a pig he was," laughing that "he should be taken out and shot."

Zoe quickly interrupted them as Victor introduced me, a "long-lost friend" of her grandfather's.

She greeted me with a cautious hug, despite the heat, then introduced her friends, part of the ensemble that was playing Sebastian's quintet.

The violist mentioned how they were looking forward to hearing it themselves, all the way through: they'd only rehearsed it piecemeal for a few hours over the past two days and it was quite a surprise.

"Oh," I wondered, almost tasting my considerable curiosity, "in what way?"

"That," Victor said, ushering me away, "is for you to find out."

A bell sounded as Zoe and her friends, excusing themselves, wished there was time to take a dip in the pool first. They'd been sweating so much, their shirts soaked, it looked like they already had.

A waiter wandered around, ringing a hand-bell, the signal it was time to head back into the heat to resume the concert, initiating a gradual, almost reluctant promenade, not that the ballroom was that much cooler. Victor introduced two other guests of his, Dr. Helen Highwater and Mary Rowberson, who mentioned they'd arrived late, alas, just before the Chopin.

And now it was Schumann's turn. If he called the opening "Spring Marches In," here it was more pedestrian, a little pompous. There were some problems typical of hot summer days – intonation, woodwind players' reed issues – but for the most part what the performance may have lacked in technical precision, the musicians certainly made up for in their enthusiasm.

After the applause – the audience quickly standing but here deserved for just getting through the concert – people drifted back inside for the reception where Victor quietly reconnoitered with his guests to meet back at the farmhouse.

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To be continued...

- Dick Strawser

The novel, "The Doomsday Symphony," written between 2010 and 2011, is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2012

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