Monday, September 29, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 4 (Part 1)

The Lost Chord

(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, following Rob's remarks before dinner was served and joking good-naturedly about a possible Schweinwald Curse, we find out what little Rob has told people about his new opera, Faustus Inc., and meet a timid composer named Lionel Roth and his therapist, a large-built and rather exotic-looking fellow, Dr. Iobba Dhabbodhú. Rob excuses himself to go get something he'd left in his room.
= = = = = = =

CHAPTER 4 (Part 1)

A brilliant day as I drove from Connecticut: Rob had arrived barely an hour earlier than me that spring afternoon, no surprise considering his shorter drive from his parents’ home near Philadelphia. He joked his first stay at Benninghurst was better than mine for having been there this little bit longer. Parking my car and dragging my bags up to the mansion’s porch, I took in the view from the hilltop, then turned to see Rob waiting for me at the door. Adding this to his never-ending joke of being older by mere hours, it wasn’t necessary for me to point out I’d already finished my doctorate and recently started teaching in college, while he could point out he made several times what I earned even if it was his dad’s company.

We arranged our first stays at the Benninghurst Colony to coincide, whoever suggested it first, but I chuckled he used me as a reference since he was still, technically, in grad school. I got in largely on the recommendation of my colleague, Sebastian Crevecoeur; Rob had the Juilliard clout behind him. Recently turned 27, we'd rarely seen each other aside from the occasional dinner when I’d go into New York: this was our first extended visit since his wedding five years ago.

It was the new arrivals’ first day of registration for the summer, like going to college all over again, not very much to do but Rob carefully guided me through it, first checking in with the tall young Black girl set up at a simple folding table in the foyer. The rules were few and uncomplicated, how we would gather for breakfast then work in our studios without disturbing anyone else until dinner, after which we could do whatever we wanted. It was recommended to take a walk around the gardens after breakfast, though we both had a good walk to our studios, cottages in the woods fairly far from the mansion.

(This, we found out later, was an intern hoping to study composition, a bright, personable girl named Porgia Moore.)

After receiving my official Benninghurst tote-bag and a set of old-fashioned keys – I would be working in the Bartók Cottage down the outer pathway not far from Rob in the Riegger Cottage – Rob led me up the staircase and down this long hallway to find my room, right next to his. He pointed out one room we passed, originally Hearst Benning’s master bedroom, a grand salon on the outside perimeter with an imposing bay and its own private balcony overlooking the garden.

Usually reserved for one of their celebrity fellows or a resident teacher, it would be empty for another two weeks but Porgia wouldn’t tell him who would be occupying it, then. Meanwhile, they’d left it unlocked on purpose but even so, we felt like students sneaking in against the rules.

This was one of the few rooms in the main mansion that had a piano, a combination bedroom and studio, a baby grand carefully tucked away in the voluptuously curtained bay window. There was a large four-poster bed at the opposite end, a small central fireplace with a delicate writing desk. And windows everywhere, panels of glass across the balcony, letting in sunlight filtered through a row of protective pines. Everything about the room spoke of luxury, conducive to opulent Wagnerian Romanticism.

By comparison, our rooms were fairly Spartan affairs, tucked away at the back of the third floor, after many turns, something of a let-down having caught a glimpse of the master bedroom. These, he told me, had originally been part of the servants’ quarters, quaint and simple but still modestly comfortable. If it made me feel any better, there might have been two maids or footmen to one such room, suddenly feeling much more spacious knowing I had it all to myself.

Not sure how Rob felt, compared to what he was used to, for me it was a place to sleep or, in the evening, perhaps look back over the day’s work. With its ample desk, even a plush wing-back chair, I could work on the orchestration or spend time reading.

Tucked up under the roof-line, these rooms were not gloomy and didn’t even seem that stuffy, considering the summer heat, the walls thin enough we could tap Morse code to each other. But the ceilings were high, the windows airy, one long panel giving a decent view across the back yard.

Of course, the whole purpose was to spend the day – from 9am to 5pm – at work in our studios so there was little concern about finer things in our private rooms.

The mansion was a large rectangular affair, largely symmetrical – and larger than you’d think, seeing it from the front – built by Hearst Benning’s father Spencer, a coal baron of the 1880s. There were parlors, dining rooms and a library balancing the central ballroom along with some fifteen guest rooms upstairs. The bedroom parallel to the master suite was originally for Hearst’s mother, a dowager’s room which, after her death, became his wife Elizabeth’s, as the couple inevitably sought their separate ways.

The servants’ quarters – ten rooms now reserved for the younger first-time fellows – were accessible by stairs from the main upstairs hallway and, less sweeping but more practical, down into the kitchen. Old-timers joked that while the guest rooms were more luxuriant, the servants’ rooms had direct access to the refrigerator.

Cutting through the kitchen where a small but smiling staff was preparing that evening’s dinner – meatloaf with homemade macaroni salad – we quietly disappeared through the side door out into the back yard. A few guests strolled around without any particular purpose, enjoying a break, but we headed out toward our studios. Rob had been warned the cuisine rarely matched the mansion’s extravagant environment: oatmeal for breakfast; a sandwich with fruit packed for your lunch; more likely basic meat and potatoes for dinner. You didn’t come to Benninghurst to eat – it wasn’t a spa, despite the grand nature of the main house – you came to work, to find a creative spark in its atmosphere which worked hard to protect you from everyday intrusions and which, amazingly, was all free, maintained primarily through contributions.

There were two paths, nearly concentric: the Inner Path which went through the garden and down past the duck pond – someone had made an ornate sign referring to this as Swann’s Way – and the Outer Path which curved with seemingly aimless disposition through the woods and hence called the Tao Path. Along the way were road signs which, aside from jokingly pointing the way to New York and Paris, Los Angeles and (for some reason) Anchorage, guided you toward various well-hidden cottages.

Riegger, Rob’s home-away-from-home for the next month, was a little further down the path, out-of-sight beyond mounds of rhododendrons. We stopped first at Bartók, a quaint hut on a tiny hill, looking like a cross between Mahler’s “composing hut” and a place you’d expect to find a family of elves. Even more Spartan than the servants’ quarter, it boasted little more than an upright piano, a simple but sturdy desk, a drafting table, two different chairs and a faded damask day-bed.

A few hundred yards further, Rob’s cottage only looked considerably different for being a two-story tower overlooking a stream, one large high-ceilinged room with a single set of small shuttered windows and steps curving up the one wall to a high window looking into the middle of a giant hemlock.

Unpacking everything from our tote-bags, we set up shop in our respective cabins, preparing to “rough it,” getting out blank manuscript paper, various pens and pencils, notebooks and a few reference books. Rob joked about finding a can labeled “Bat Repellent” while I made a note to find some ant traps. There were phones with signs asking us to limit their use to emergencies and a box with several umbrellas and flashlights because, inevitably, you always left them back at the house.

Another sign I found recommended we take any newly completed work back to the mansion each evening for safe-keeping, whether because of fire or a rash of thieving bears left unsaid, also advising us not to stay past sunset as the paths through the woods were not lit after dark.

We stayed a few hours, mostly acclimating ourselves, before packing things up for the long walk back to the mansion, both of us fairly subdued though not from any sense of disappointment. I hoped for good weather for the duration – such a walk in the rain was not pleasant to contemplate. Going around to the front entrance, we stopped and looked up at the Benning Suite, as it was called, sneaking up the balcony’s steps to peer longingly into the room’s luxuriousness.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

“If it’s 7:30 here, it’ll be 1:30 in the morning in Schweinwald.” He made the usual calculations in his head, hurrying toward the steps, leaving the din of the ballroom behind him. “So if I send him that file now, D’Arcy will have it first thing after he wakes up, Munich-time.” He would’ve mailed it earlier but he wanted to check that one English horn line – the one before Arachne Webb’s final solo – and he’d already been running late for the dinner.

Robertson Sullivan was staying in the Benning Suite, the old master bedroom, a far cry from that first stay when he had to sleep in a closet on the third floor, not to mention how he tried working in that dank dungeon out by the stream, almost a mile away.

One of the first things he did for Benninghurst once he’d established himself as a composer people paid attention to, was to put electronic keyboards with headsets in each of its bedrooms. That way, any resident could work privately without disturbing anyone in the next room, making the separate studios obsolete. Built when complete isolation was necessary to avoid the mind-numbing cacophony of row after row of student practice rooms, these small studios dotting the landscape had served their purpose for generations.

Rob never considered himself nostalgic in that sense of the word but this morning after breakfast, he took the once familiar walk down the Outer Path back to the gray tower and decided to leave a memento there, hiding something someone someday might find and realize Robertson Sullivan worked here. Despite some minor, last-minute changes, it was like a back-up copy he’d have to remember to tell Terry about, in case anything happens to him – not that that was really likely.

He kept having these vague images of his friend, Franz-Dieter Zeitgeist, sitting in his favorite restaurant, “The Wolf’s Glen,” telling him what sounded like paranoid nonsense about these threats he’d received. But then, not much later, Zeitgeist was dead, killed on a ski-slope in an accident that just sounded suspicious.

The long hallway was quiet, darker than usual. “Wait, it’s still early, yet – they haven’t turned the hall lights on.” No wonder people thought the old house was haunted, full of ghosts. Everywhere you turned, there was a pattern in the carpeting, a shadow on the wall that made you stop. Old floors creaked and door hinges could squeak like souls in agony; the steps down into the kitchen would often echo like some peg-legged pirate was following you late at night.

“What did I want to talk to Terry about?” he wondered. “So many things – I should’ve made a list. That’s what he would’ve done, I’m sure, him and his damned lists…” As organized as he was, Rob was finding, the older he got, the more lists he needed to make.

”Maybe he could figure it out,” he thought, with some annoyance, “make sense out of what Franz-Dieter was telling me. Maybe I’m just too close to it, thought about it too much…”

People always told him there’s something to getting an outside mind to deal with things like this, another perspective.

“I should burn another disc with the score and give that to Terry,” he decided, “just another back-up copy – a precaution,” he said, practicing his delivery so he didn’t sound paranoid.

“And wasn’t it great,” he thought, “seeing Porgia and Terry together, all of us back here at the same time? Those discussions we’d had after dinner or while out taking a walk…” They’d probably sit up all night reminiscing about everything when they met that first summer, over thirty years ago. He remembered how Terry would dominate the phonograph, getting them to listen to those old recordings in the library. “Lemm hated that,” he chuckled, “like he was doing some remedial tutoring.”

Who would’ve known at the time how things would turn out later, Terry the one whose career never blossomed? If he thought about it much – and at the time, he had – he’d bet on his own inevitable failure, not the guy who knew so much and had such evident talent.

True, Arthur Lemm was the one who inevitably annoyed him the most, a man with no talent but overloaded with enough bravado and political skills to more than make up for it. Rob admitted it did feel good, despite his usual non-competitiveness, vetoing the premiere of Lemm’s new opera at Schweinwald.

“And appropriately,” he laughed, walking down the hall to his room, “Lemm’s staying over in the old Dowager's Suite.” Rob wondered if that was enough to make Arthur Lemm his bitch.

And whatever was wrong with the dinner tonight – aside from starting so late – perhaps it would’ve been better not to over-tax the kitchen and just serve the traditional Benninghurst meatloaf and potatoes.

“Yeah, it would’ve seemed cheap to do that, but then that’s what everybody’s used to when they stay here.”

Knowing not everyone would appreciate the joke, he preferred going the high road, turning it into a real banquet. Besides, Rob certainly preferred making an impression, going out with a bang.

“Wait a minute,” he thought, stopping at the door, “what’s that noise? It sounds like somebody’s in my room.”

There was another flash of Franz-Dieter Zeitgeist at Die Wolfsschlucht, looking alarmed.

Thinking it’s too late for the cleaning crew, he opened the door carefully and walked in.

“What the hell…?”

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

It was bad enough Mrs. Pomfrey was off sick that day, leaving him in charge of Benninghurst’s barely efficient kitchen, but now Manuel had to deal with Chef Garmond from Ambrosian Catering, the whole place on the verge of chaos, the chicken breasts delivered late and now a knife gone missing. He’d noticed it earlier in the afternoon, figuring it had just been misplaced but now he wasn’t so sure – not just any knife but a carving knife from the Benning silverware. When it still hadn’t turned up by the time they needed to start their prep work, he began worrying: if someone stole it, for whatever reason, it happened on his watch. The police might be able to track it down to a local pawn shop, but still, it was annoying.

The kitchen may have been old and small but guided by Mrs. Pomfrey it all functioned smoothly under normal circumstances where the standard colony clientele was one thing, a fancy banquet, another. No wonder Mrs. P had called in sick – she hated working with Ambrosian, especially relinquishing her authority to Garmond. And that sense of mistrust permeated through the whole staff, something Garmond was used to from past experience, here: he preferred to just go in and – bang! – do it all himself.

Considering the substantial fee Ambrosian was getting paid for this evening’s event, the kitchen could’ve had the night off but Manuel understood they wanted to look good with a big staff, even if Ms. Darlinghurst was aware that meant things were too crowded with too many of their responsibilities overlapping. When it came to practicalities, he knew the Assistant Director was more realistic to deal with but on an occasion like this, she was overridden by the Director’s need for showmanship.

Everything had turned into a perfect storm not long after Manuel arrived: deliveries were late, Ambrosian's crew was early and Garmond’s mood, rarely if ever good, was even fouler than normal. Nothing met his expectations: nothing was good enough, nothing was clean enough and above all, nothing was going right.

The green beans lost their crunch waiting for the baked potatoes which were being annihilated by a cantankerously outmoded oven while someone had set the flame too high for the sauté pan despite Manuel’s explanation concerning their general inexperience with sautéing or how the oven always worked fine for Mrs. Pomfrey.

In the midst of his ensuing tantrum about artists having to work under such abysmal conditions, Garmond bumped into a cook who dumped a whole container of curry into the soup.

If that weren’t enough, some oaf had chopped up all the red herrings, then dropped them onto the floor.

“You fucking maladroit,” Garmond screamed, slamming a cleaver into the chopping block. “Those were for the god-damned salads which are now, thanks to your idiocy, merely a pile of stupid greens!”

“God knows you can never have enough red herrings,” one of the surlier waiters mumbled under his breath, tired of waiting around in such cramped quarters for the appetizers to be served.

“You think it’s funny, having the salad ruined and no more herring within fifty miles of this god-forsaken hell-hole?”

And with that, Garmond grabbed the cook stirring the soup and the surly waiter, firing them on the spot.

The waiter stormed out into the yard, shouting back expletive for expletive.

From Manuel’s perspective, the rest of the evening turned into one giant, on-going blur, fast-forwarding from one obscenity to another, the kind of killer headache a whole bottle of aspirin couldn’t help, glad to leave Garmond on his own in the kitchen after the entrees were finally ready to be served. Then he could revert to his barely calmer role as headwaiter, wondering if he could ever speak to Mrs. Pomfrey again for having called in sick and missing all the excitement.

When the waiters started serving the dessert, Manuel’s thoughts again returned to the still missing carving knife, surprised, if it had been stolen, it hadn’t ended up lodged in Garmond’s back.

“What are you looking for? There’s nothing more to prepare, you moron,” Garmond snarled, stuffing his face in Manuel’s.

Manuel told him about the knife, how he’d noticed it missing when he came in, but he hadn’t had the time yet to report it stolen, hoping it would just turn up. “Maybe once the dust settles after the dinner,” he said, looking around shrugging his shoulders, “while we’re cleaning up.”

“At least you admit it was already missing before any of my staff got here,” Garmond hissed at him, “you sorry excuse for a garbage disposal,” attacking him with his fists.

He was momentarily distracted from his rage by the sight of something small racing out of the side pantry, brown and furry with large googley-looking eyes and a mouthful of teeth.

“Oh my God,” Garmond yelped, “look at the size of that rat!” It snarled and yapped back at him.

“That’s not a rat,” Manuel explained, “that is Poco, our house mascot – she’s a Cairn terrier and she keeps…”

“That’s a dog?” Garmond yelled. “Get that bitch out of my kitchen!”

A waitress tried corralling Poco before she got too close to Garmond, already rabid about how letting a dog anywhere near a kitchen was a clear violation of the health codes.

“Un-fucking-believable!” he screamed. “I’ll fire you,” tossing a tray full of plates after her, “and your little dog, too!”

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

As the waiters carried out the last of the empty entree plates and others began bringing in the dessert, Annie M, looking primly efficient, slid into the dining room and behind the head table to whisper something to Director Drummoyne who nodded back to her, responding with a few brief words.

I would’ve pointed out she’d apparently dispatched Wiener with her wicked aplomb, letting the Wizard know all was well, except everyone else at our table was already busy talking but me.

Dessert was being met with approval across the room, generous slices of cheesecake, plain but creamy, with an alternative bowl of rice pudding and whipped cream for the more diet conscious. Considering it was such a special occasion, I joked with LauraLynn that was sufficient excuse to ignore any calories.

She started telling me how she and Rob were talking about pooling foundation resources to bring musical instruments and teachers to kids in poor inner-city neighborhoods and how they’d like my advice, setting up a program in Philadelphia – since Rob grew up in the area – modeled on Venezuela’s famous El Sistema.

Perhaps that was what Rob wanted to talk about, though I suspected it might be more about the threats: he seemed pretty upset thinking about his friend Zeitgeist having been murdered.

Speaking of Rob, I kept turning around, looking toward the doorway wondering when he’d get back from his room, and each time noticed Lionel Roth didn’t seem to get any calmer. He completely ignored the cheesecake placed in front of him, like he needed any more sugar in his system.

Annie M just as efficiently slid back out of the dining room before I managed to get her attention, before I could ask her to go take a look at Roth.

When I pointed him out to Cameron, since he was starting a psychology degree in college, he looked over and thought if someone would just talk to him, it might help.

There was a clatter in the hallway of broken plates and glasses barely covering somebody’s cursing at a dog.

A little brown lapdog barged into the room, yapping its head off.

“Oh, look, Sol,” Felice cooed, “it’s Poco!”

Followed by a frazzled waitress charging after her, Poco yapped a few times, turned and ran back out the door, eluding capture to dash up the steps, the waitress in lukewarm pursuit.

“It’s not unusual for Poco to get loose,” Drummoyne sighed, sitting down. We could hear her still yapping upstairs. “Sorry – they’ll be able to catch her before she becomes a problem.”

A moment later, the waitress came back, perplexed, and beckoned to the head-waiter and Annie M to follow her.

“Poco is the colony mascot,” Sol explained, “but not everybody likes dogs.”

Roth certainly seemed not to, getting more worked up. I couldn’t understand why his friend had left him alone.

A woman’s scream cut through the confusion like a buzz-saw, conversation stopping the instant Drummoyne leapt up, his brows furrowed. I noticed concern on other guests’ faces, questions raised by the scream.

Annie M and the headwaiter, both looking terrified, rushed back down the steps, colliding with Drummoyne in the doorway.

Only Lionel Roth, visibly shaken, had buried his face in his hands, hunched over, leaning back against the wall, as if knowing some foreboding he’d had, something dreaded, had come true.

= = = = = = = 
To be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

The novel, The Lost Chord, is a music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2014

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 3 (Part 2)

The Lost Chord

(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, Kerr recalls Sullivan's early years as a budding composer and wonders what could possibly be concerning him now, a composer who's earned so much success and esteem. After Sullivan's remarks at dinner, we find out a little about this music festival in Germany - the Schweinwald Festival - where his opera will be premiered and where he's about to take on the role of director.
= = = = = = =

CHAPTER 3 (continued...)

Nervous laughter flickered around Benninghurst’s dining room when Rob mentioned a curse, a not unexpected part of a story containing a presumably haunted castle, Gothic horror operas and mysteriously timed, ominous deaths, all told by a man who, just completing a setting of the Faust legend, had inherited the Schweinwald mantle. There was a loud snort from the far corner, the big man seen arguing earlier with Warren Suli Cohen now trying to cover his poorly faked cough with a well-placed napkin.

Considering what Rob had just told me a few moments ago, perhaps the idea of a curse wasn’t so far-fetched but what was this talk of mysterious threats, speaking of ominous? Who would have wanted Zeitgeist dead or even Falkenstein, much less Rob – could they possibly all be connected, somehow?

Rob’s first encounter with Zeitgeist was at a symposium hosted by Haverford College not long after Rob started teaching there, bringing together artists and entrepreneurs to explore educational projects in the arts. At the time, Zeitgeist was a guest lecturer at Haverford, offering an “Arts and Economics” seminar with open registration. Remembering his Harvard adviser’s suggestion about a career that combined his love of music with his background in finance, Rob attended every panel Zeitgeist was speaking on and was very impressed.

There were hours of conversation spent in and around these panels which prompted Zeitgeist to want to stay in touch with his young American friend even after his return to Germany, at one point inviting Rob to participate in a similar symposium he was planning at Schweinwald the following summer. When Rob had a sabbatical coming up, Zeitgeist arranged for him to spend it working as his assistant at Schweinwald shortly after he’d become its director, brainstorming over some new ideas.

Together, they began turning the once charming provincial festival into something more vibrant with a considerable New Music component, which several older board members resisted but inspired Cousin Berthe to resign. Both were also represented as composers on some of the programs, highlighting their activities as more than just administrators.

It was a song cycle of Rob’s, initially inspired by scenes from Goethe’s Faust, that prompted much discussion and ultimately led the festival to commission expanding it into his first full-length opera, especially considering, in his up-dated adaptation, Rob had transformed Mephistopheles into a woman, the CEO of a corrupt corporation. The premiere should coincide with the opening of the Festspielhaus’ new addition, Zeitgeist decided, celebrating the festival’s latest development, becoming a year-round center with a concert hall and the new conservatory.

Equally unexpected had been Zeitgeist offering him the job of Associate Director for the New Music Festival, his duties beginning whenever he wanted to start. Rob quit his teaching job immediately. They began plans to resuscitate the old Schweinwald Academy, reclaiming the 19th Century legacy of an earlier Falkenstein’s vision.

But with recent developments after Franz-Dieter Zeitgeist’s death, Rob realized most of his career would now keep him in Europe, prompting one more announcement, fostering a special relationship between Benninghurst and Schweinwald, establishing an annual competition where the winning works by composers from Benninghurst will be performed at the Schweinwald Festival.

“So I’m presenting Director Drummoyne with this check for $50,000,” resuming after a communal gasp and bursts of applause, “with annual contributions I’ll continue making for as long as I live.”

The main course was finally served amidst a flurry of conversations reacting to Rob’s speech, following a round of cheers and shouts of “Bon voyage!” when he concluded by wishing everybody well. Some struck up a chorus of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” while others clapped in rhythm and cheered. I could imagine several people in the room – Drummoyne, in particular, staring at the check in amazement – calculating Rob’s likely lifespan and the amount his contributions might total over the years. No one could ever complain Rob Sullivan wasn’t generous with his wealth, much to his father’s constantly expressed annoyance, which often made him very popular but for all the wrong reasons. I’m sure there were those who’d prefer he just give everybody a thousand dollars, like a going-away party favor.

With so little time to say good-bye, it was one of the main reasons for his planning the whole dinner, getting them all together and, in a sense, getting it over with; still I felt a little uneasy when he joked how they wouldn’t have to come to his funeral, now. Everything had managed to put him in a much better mood, ultimately, and those darker confidences – or at least what had earlier started out to be confidences – had probably been forgotten.

“Your cousin looks quite happy,” Felice said to LauraLynn as the waiters went around the table, delivering our dinners, quiet consultations verifying who wanted the chicken, fish or the vegetarian plates.

“Relieved, I think is the word,” she laughed. “Getting the opera done is a major weight off his mind.”

“I haven’t heard much about it beyond being a ‘Faust’ opera,” Sol chimed in, moving his salad dish aside.

“Oh, Rob’s been very secretive about it,” LauraLynn added, “only telling me…”

“LauraLynn, how wonderful to see you,” a woman said, rudely interrupting us, then greeting Sol and Felice by name, nodding with enough familiarly at Sherry to cover up she’d forgotten hers. I assumed she was important enough it excused her rudeness, and, being no one, I wasn’t worth being noticed.

“Who was that?” LauraLynn whispered to Felice once the woman fluttered off to another table, so happy to see everyone. “I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen her before in my life.”

“Apparently we weren’t worth being greeted,” Cameron said, more amused than nonplussed. “She didn’t even pretend to know us.”

“That was Marsha deSouza, one of the official glad-handers for SHMRG,” Sol explained, brushing off the reference as inconsequential. Cameron practically choked on some green beans and tried stifling his alarm.

“Shmurg? I don’t think I’ve ever… oh, wait, I believe Rob’s mentioned them before,” LauraLynn added, noticing Cameron’s discomfort. “Aren’t they some kind of music licensing organization, branching out into Classical?”

“That’s it,” Felice chirped, “they collect money from performances and broadcasts, then distribute it to the composers they represent.”

Ignoring how they skimmed a sizable percentage from already meager fees – not to mention any of their other debatable policies – I returned to Sol’s question about the opera, what little Rob mentioned: called Faustus, Inc., it was set in a modern-day corporation and how Mephistopheles had become its female CEO, Arachne Webb.

LauraLynn added, “I’m not sure how much he even told the Schweinwald board about it, and they’d commissioned it!”

Felice was practically salivating, imagining what a great role that would be.

“I’m surprised he came back here to finish it,” Sol said wistfully, “given all those wonderful places in Europe.” Sol had a particular fondness for Florence where he went almost every summer. “A friend of mine recently finished a one-act opera staying at this incredible villa someone loaned him in Provence.”

“Imagine trying to compose under those conditions,” I said, finally spearing a bit of fish that kept getting away. “So many distractions.” Not that I wouldn’t mind being given the opportunity.

LauraLynn thought Rob sensed this might be the last time he’d be a fellow at Benninghurst for a while. There was a history, naturally, first coming here fresh out of Juilliard. It didn’t matter where else he visited, he always felt more productive here, returning every four or five years.

“You know, he should fix up that old castle he was talking about at Schweinwald and turn it into a writer’s colony,” Sherry joked, “I mean, if you’re writing a Faust opera...”

“There were times they’d considered it,” LauraLynn added, “but the place is in such disrepair, it’d cost a fortune. Rob has his eye on a rustic old villa not far from the castle, actually, someplace he could live without being disturbed and write there whenever he had the free time.”

“Imagine if Brahms or Mahler didn’t have to search out holiday places so they could spend the summers composing. They could’ve gone to the Schweinwald Colony to work on their symphonies!” Sol was enjoying his little fantasy, transplanting an American artist’s colony deep into the heart of 19th Century Germany.

“Actually,” LauraLynn added, quickly swallowing a bit of potato, “both of them were at Schweinwald the same summer – at least according to this journal my great-grandfather kept when he was there.”

“Really?” I said, putting my utensils down in surprise. “I’d never seen anything about that before in any biography of either Brahms or Mahler. What is this journal you’re talking about?”

“Rob has it, now, but it’s mostly in some kind of code, so no one’s ever actually read it.”

The conversation behind me started to overheat and I turned to see who was making the fuss as much out of curiosity as to let them know it was getting too loud. Otterby Wiener and one of Rob’s critic-friends, Antoinette Adverse, were discussing the “new reality” of success in this country when Wiener started tearing into Arthur Lemm, calling him the “Headmaster of the Bottom Line School of Music,” preaching that nothing was good unless it succeeded in making lots of money. Others at their table might have been enjoying a thoughtful discussion about an issue that wasn’t really a new phenomenon, although one heightened by Americans defining success at the Box Office, but once it modulated into a personal attack on Lemm, Wiener lost whatever sympathy he had and became belligerent.

“Odd,” Sherry whispered to Cameron, “for a man who writes music best suited to ‘soothing elderly convalescents in up-scale neighborhoods,’ who’d guess he has such a passionate streak in him, after all?”

“But even Arthur can’t deny Rob’s success,” Adverse countered, trying to appease.

“Lemm denies everything!” Wiener shouted, pointing accusingly.

With everyone else focusing on Wiener's outburst, I glanced over at the head table where all conversation had stopped. The look of contempt on Arthur Lemm’s face became a hideous sneer.

Just beyond Wiener's table, over in the one corner, sat a meek-looking man – one of those once-ubiquitous blackberries in his ear – across from the big man who’d argued with Suli earlier. The larger man calmly, efficiently continued slicing away at his chicken breast but the smaller man appeared quite agitated.

Then I noticed there was eye contact between the smaller man and Lemm, his anxiety immediately turning into fear.

“Sherry,” I asked, “you know everybody: who are those two, over there?”

“Ah,” she said, gently putting down her knife and fork, “that’s a sad story. The little one, the African-American, is a composer named Lionel something… Ross or maybe Roth, I believe. The exotic-looking guy with him – I think he’s also a composer – is his agent, the famous Dr. Iobba Dhabbodhú.”

The big man certainly was exotic looking, swarthy, bald, more like a wrestler than an agent, much less a composer. Dressed in a well-tailored light brown suit, he looked formal and professional. Sherry thought he was Middle-Eastern, Egyptian perhaps, but his trim beard gave him a whiff of slightly predictable evil.

Lionel, on the other hand, looked the opposite of formal, professional, or even confident, embodying everything his agent wasn’t. Small-framed and stocky, middle-aged past the verge of decline, he exuded inadequacy.

Sherry explained, from what she’d heard, Lionel – she was pretty sure it was Roth – was the only son of a wealthy family and never exhibited real talent for much of anything. Since he loved music, he decided to major in it despite the lack of support from friends and teachers.

Unable to play an instrument well enough to perform, he tried composition instead, taking to it, by comparison, more naturally despite never developing much, still waiting for his talent to “blossom forth.” He was happy enough, making a precarious living in a Manhattan music store, but it was about to close.

Lionel took the blackberry out of his ear, slapping it on the table as Dhabbodhú got up and left.

Odd he’d leave now, I thought, considering his client clearly needed help.

Wiener continued arguing apparently to no one in particular as Sherry indicated the others were all trying to ignore him. Adverse pushed her unfinished plate back and, getting up, politely excused herself. The other guests at the table began burying themselves in their cell-phones whether they had text messages or not.

Arthur Lemm, sitting at Rob’s left, appeared to be amused by Wiener’s outburst, neither surprised nor offended by it, waving away Rob’s apologies as unnecessary but gratefully received all the same.

Catching the general drift, Wiener eventually turned his attention to the remains of his dinner and stopped muttering altogether, shoveling his vegetables away like a good boy, unaware he’d been snubbed. The rest of us passed off the disruption as a symptom of an overwrought creative mind and moved on.

Ever since childhood, Rob and I had been discussing this same conundrum, wanting success but unsure how to define it, debating whether or not popularity or making money was the reasonable assessment. Both of us felt it was more a personal realization, our own satisfaction, rather than anything imposed by others. On the outside of the typical social perception, neither of us could be accused of being popular or getting rich off our music, except Rob had more of each than I.

What was it like at Rob’s table, Lemm on one side and the critic, Otto deLoup, on the other? DeLoup was the one who’d coined the expression “Art Lemmings” years ago, Lemm then responding by declaring him out of touch with popular taste, irrelevant, concerned only with his ivory tower. By branding deLoup a member of the Musical Left Wing, Lemm became the leader of the ‘Right Now’ Wing. Should one be found murdered, the other would automatically be a suspect.

Curiously they were good friends, Lemm and deLoup, realizing that their public taunting helped fuel the controversy between them, but there were times it must have come dangerously close to hurtful. Rather than resorting to murder, though, they preferred to kill each other on a regular basis only in print.

When Ms. Adverse returned from the lady’s room, Wiener, without looking up, started in again, mumbling an almost inaudible litany that was soon loud enough I could understand what he was saying, this time developing into a well-rehearsed rant against money and its privileges, directed specifically at our host, Robertson Sullivan. Even before her butt hit the seat, Ms. Adverse was up again, this time going in search of the colony’s resident nurse, the formidable Anna Myszkiewicz, whom everybody called Annie M.

“Of course Sullivan’s successful, right?” Wiener continued, waving his fork around aimlessly. “Easy, when you’ve got all that money. Any rich boy can buy success whether you have talent or not.”

With that, Annie M appeared and cajolingly led him away, saying “Otterby, let’s go take our medicine, shall we?”

From across the room, you heard the unmistakable whine of Warren Suli Cohen. “That’s what happens when you write nothing but ambient music like that. Nothing left up there but resonant space…”

An embarrassed chuckle broke through the tension and soon everything returned to the normal undertow of conversational white noise.

Sol explained how Rob had offended Wiener yesterday, interrupting him mid-rant by saying he needed to get a brain.

“Looks like Suli could use a heart.”

“And Lionel Roth, some courage!”

Felice’s laughter rippled like an arabesque on the celesta over an orchestra, silvery as it cascaded across our attempted humor before I realized several people looked over, wondering what was so funny. We managed to get ourselves under control, afraid at any moment we’d burst out in a fit of giggles. Feeling impolite for having fun at Wiener’s expense, I improvised a non sequitur I hoped sounded like a punch-line – “That’s when the critic told me, ‘Oh well, better luck next time.’”

The absurdity of it only confused some of the others, bringing them back to their senses with bemused smiles, but Felice soared off into even higher roulades before catching her breath. If she ever mastered the art of circular breathing, it occurred to me this could go on for days.

The waiters were already clearing away the dinner plates when I noticed Rob had gotten up and, with a big smile on his face, started working his way over to our table, and I congratulated him on his catching the ‘Wizard of Benninghurst’ so completely off guard with his unexpected donation.

“Yes,” he smiled, “that was fun. Terry, I have to run back to my room for a moment to…”

“You’re going to miss dessert?” Felice bubbled.

“Doctor’s orders – watching my cholesterol.”

Rob explained there was something he’d wanted to show me which, hurrying around after burning that CD, he’d forgotten about.

“It’ll only take a few minutes to go back and get it.”

“Let me go along with you,” I said, “it’ll give us a chance to catch up some loose ends.”

“No,” he said, whispering in my ear, “that’s okay. You stay and enjoy your dessert. We’ll talk afterward, okay?” Then, clapping me on the shoulder, he headed out to the hallway.

As Rob circulated around some of the tables, shaking hands and saying a few words, I noticed the little man – Lionel Roth – watching him, beginning to look more anxious than before, but he let Rob pass without saying anything, disappointed, then turned away from him with a look of alarm.

= = = = = = =
To be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

The novel, The Lost Chord, is a classical music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2014

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 3 (Part 1)

The Lost Chord

(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, Rob Sullivan's cousin, LauraLynn Harty, arrives in style at the Benninghurst dinner and there's a brief reunion of three childhood friends. Rob has only a brief chance to talk to Kerr and mentions some unsettling news - including death threats and that he's convinced his mentor Franz-Dieter Zeitgeist's recent skiing death was no accident.
= = = = = = =

CHAPTER 3 (Part 1)

The family called it “The Island” even though it really wasn’t an island, technically, but that was the family custom and Rob’s sense of logic never managed to prevail over age-old tradition. Certainly there was no need for my arguing with them since nothing I could say would rightly impress them. I was allowed to join Rob for one week out of the whole summer the Sullivans spent in Maine – one tantalizingly brief week once school was out, so much like paradise. The train ride from Philadelphia to New York was long and boring but across New England, beautiful and fascinating (who could imagine, at age 14, my professional life would begin here?). It would be less interesting taking the return trip, alone and mostly at night, a short seven days later.

We took the ferry already filled with “Summer People” across Penobscot Bay rather than taking the longer road from Rockland to drive out to the end of the peninsula, the Sullivans’ island, the first glimpse of the ocean I could remember, too young when my family’d taken me to Cape May. Mom said I’d stood on the beach, peering out to see Europe (whatever that might've meant) but seeing nothing, never bothered with it again, complaining only of the endless, broiling sand.

The Sullivan’s house – Endura, they called it – stood on a rocky promontory looking out over the bay, its back shielded from the ocean by a pine-covered hill they called the mountain (if they called this an island, they could call that a mountain), looking old and imposing and thoroughly grand. I could sense there was something different about the light, here, especially the way it played on the water, in my excitement, disappointed that Rob responded, “Yes, I guess there is.” He’d been coming here his whole life, I imagined, and must find it pretty boring.

“Not boring,” he said, “just part of our habit, always the same. It’s very comforting, though.”

Certainly not my habit, I thought, looking around as Rob gave me a private tour, more disconcerting than comforting.

It would take many guests to fill so large a house: his mother had arrived earlier with her sister Catherine, a slew of cousins from New York City expected the next day; his father, preoccupied on the trip with his brother’s family, would only stay a few days at a time. Meanwhile, Rob and I, left to ourselves, had the run of the place, immediately settling into the music room. There, we played the piano for each other and listened to records.

By this time, we had both started taking composition more seriously, listening to music with a more practiced eye, spending more time noodling around on the piano improvising instead of practicing. We would point things out to each other, a detail here, a nuance there, when something sounded more promising.

We played piano duets – Rob brought along several pieces by Schubert and Debussy – and read books aloud to each other, biographies or those “concert companions” about composers and their most famous works. But mostly we talked – about music, about what we wanted to be when we grew up, things like that.

We also started our “dueling improvisations” that summer, one starting off and then the other picking up the thread, the real challenge in making use of the other’s motives and harmonies.

Aunt Katie was the one who insisted we spend more time outside – that was what summer vacations were for, after all – so we’d go off on our own while she and Rob’s mom sat on the porch with the younger children, but instead of playing, we’d take our books and read. There were several spots that might pass for beaches – more pebbles and rocks than sand – but our favorite ones were those farthest from the house, of course, and facing the ocean.

We considered Maurice, Aunt Gracie’s oldest, an obnoxious twit, snobs that we were, only seven years old and too young for us but too old to be stuck with the babies. He had no interest in music and Rob didn’t like the responsibility of watching him down on the beach.

Besides, Rob said he always liked going out to Horizon Point where he could stretch out naked on the rocks; it wasn’t long until I, once the scandalousness wore off, joined him. It became very natural-feeling after a little while and, reading, talking or swimming, a regular part of our day. As long as we were back in time for dinner, we could spend the whole afternoon there by ourselves, and no one at the house seemed to mind we were gone.

Near the end of my week, lying on a large flat rock in the shade and laughing about some Ives piece the Philadelphia Orchestra had played which we thought was the ugliest noise we’d ever heard, Rob suddenly went silent before saying there was something he had to tell me.

Then Rob saw Maurie scrambling over the rocks and, too late to grab our trunks, sent him back to the house. Running off laughing, Maurie said he was going to tell.

Mr. Sullivan, back for his weekend and not far behind Maurie, saw us scrambling to get into our clothes, leading Rob away before he told me what he’d wanted to say.

Asked what we did that was wrong, his father said, “You got caught. Consider it a lesson in business.”

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Arthur Lemm glared back at me, miffed that all he had gotten from Rob was a simple, muffled “Thanks, Art” as Lemm guided him toward the front table without saying anything further. Once again, I watched Rob led away before he’d had a chance to say what he’d wanted to say.

Back in Maine, when I'd asked him about it later, he dismissed it with a shrug of his shoulders. Once again, something was being left unsaid: what would happen this time?

As Director Drummoyne stood at the head table, he announced they were going to begin if everybody please took their seats. I made it back to my table just in time. Around me, the chatter of conversation modulated to the scraping of chairs, the occasional clinking of glasses and silverware. Rob, settling into the center chair, took a while to cheer himself up, looking around as the guests were seated. His guests – friends, colleagues, some rivals – looked up at him and smiled. Soon, I could tell he was back to his normal, unaffected self, smiling and nodding, happy to be alive.

“Let it never be said you won’t get a great reception at Benninghurst,” Director Drummoyne said, beginning his remarks. “And given the late start, let’s serve the appetizers before I begin?”

With that, a series of well-trained waiters, gliding into place, silently distributed plates of summer salads to every diner. Almost an hour late getting started, they knew everyone was very hungry.

I informed Cameron that this could turn into a very long night.

“Why,” he asked, “because of the speeches?”

Leaning over, trying to avoid the waiter’s arm, I whispered to him that something very serious was bothering Rob but he hadn’t had a chance to tell me much of anything.

“He and I really need to talk and I don’t know how long it might take after dinner’s over. I can’t say much here, but he started mentioning something about threats.”

“Do you think he’s in any danger?”

“Danger, sir?” asked the waiter, holding up carafes of regular and decaf.

Sidney Drummoyne rose and cleared his throat again, testing the microphone which, after a round of annoying feedback, ended up being reset at such a low level, it really was almost useless.

“If you don’t mind eating while I talk, I won’t mind talking while you eat,” he began his remarks.

So many people had accepted their invitations, he’d been afraid there would not be enough room and, with the weather so uncertain, being unable to hold it outside on the lawn.

Looking around the room, he mentioned how impressive it was to see so many famous faces at Benninghurst tonight, names that were well known to him and to American music lovers, though I would have preferred, when he acknowledged those he didn’t know, he hadn’t been looking directly at me.

“And if you’d like to share in the on-going up-keep of Benninghurst during these difficult times for supporting the arts, please see me or my wonderful assistant, Ms. Darlinghurst, after the dinner.”

When she rose to acknowledge his nod, several of the older men in the audience mumbled their ardent appreciation.

“We’re here to congratulate a frequent guest at Benninghurst who has been a major contributor and active board member, who’s about to embark on a new endeavor in his illustrious career.”

Robertson Sullivan’s career might not have had the meteoric rise others saw but it was “slow and steady” enough to be inevitable and successful, though his father might – and often did – disagree. Rob often wondered if his slowness to succeed wasn’t the result of ignoring the career he’d been born to. His father had never been pleased his only child “betrayed” him by deciding to go into music after all, even after having been handed a career with his degree from Harvard. He certainly hadn’t gone into it for the money, knowing he had a considerable inheritance to look forward to but his father often threatened to disinherit him, punishment for his “betrayal.” Gilbert Sullivan considered his son a failure on any number of levels: he’d even failed to produce an heir.

But that didn’t mean Rob wasn’t satisfied with his life – well, at least with his career, he later told me, starting with two degrees from Juilliard after a lot of hard work. He’d always kept up with his music at Harvard but the composition, lacking the time, he inadvertently let slide. Going to concerts and listening to recordings whenever he could, he held his own when talking with other musicians, glad his coursework wasn’t too challenging that he could afford the time.

When one of his composer-friends heard him improvising at the piano, he offered to give him the occasional lesson, keeping it casual – good background for Rob, good training for his friend. So they would get together some Saturday afternoon whenever Rob had the time and something to show for it. Eventually, Rob found himself bringing in a new short piano piece every weekend, exploring new directions, he called it, a harmonic style both of us would’ve cringed at five years earlier.

When he had a dozen he felt comfortable with, he sent them to me, asking me to “be brutal.” Instead, I told him I would program them for my next recital. Eventually, after building up some much-needed confidence, Rob officially started taking theory and history classes in his junior year.

He didn’t graduate at the top of his class – too much study time wasted on useless music, his father complained – but his adviser suggested he consider a career combining music and business. At first, that didn’t sound satisfying but what chance was there he could make a living as a composer? Moving to Manhattan to work in his father’s office, at first he was impatient to resume his music studies, taking time for all the concerts and, his newest discovery, the opera. What he hadn’t realized before getting married was how little time there’d be left for concerts and the opera, especially since Beatrice found going to concerts boring and the opera unbearable. It was all he could manage to carve out a little composing time for himself early in the mornings.

After a few years of this, he had enough to apply to Juilliard where he started what he called his Masters on the Installment Plan, some composition lessons here, a course there, and in a few long years, he had managed to earn the credits for a master’s degree in composition. More importantly, he received a lot of positive attention for a piano trio and an orchestral piece he’d written, but who knew where he’d finally end up from such inauspicious beginnings?

To a round of applause and clicking of silverware on goblets, Robertson Sullivan rose to acknowledge his guests’ warm welcome, thanking as well Director Drummoyne for his kind (and kindly brief) introduction.

“It’s an honor so many’ve come,” he said, “even considering most composers would never say no to free food.”

There were a few chuckles but when someone piped up, “Yeah, and it’s late, too,” there were more laughs. Waiters, trying not to notice, hoped everyone knew it wasn’t their fault.

“You know, if you want a party to celebrate a milestone,” he said, “you should probably throw it yourself, so I just want everybody to know I’m paying for everything tonight.” There were cheers all around. “Since I’ve already missed my 60th birthday, I thought I’d celebrate my new opera.”

He mentioned how he’d just finished proofing the score only a couple hours ago, burning it to this CD-Rom which he pulled from his pocket and held aloft like the sacramental host, and how he was leaving for Germany tomorrow to assume his responsibilities as the director of the Schweinwald Festival.

“It’s been a long road, as some of you are well aware, creating an opera out of thin air, but it’s been a long road to Schweinwald, too, for that matter.

“It would have been nice if I had finished it back in January the way we’d originally planned this schedule, but you can never account for those problems that invariably come along. For instance, I found myself unhappy with the ending and it got worse as I got further into it. But coming around to a completely revised and totally rewritten conclusion is made easier when you’re your own librettist – however, then I have nobody else to blame if it doesn’t work.

“If there wasn’t enough pressure already, I was told this morning the premiere will be broadcast on German television and will be made available to several American affiliates for high-definition transmission. Without doubt, I’m one very happy composer, today: now all I need is for the critics to like it!”

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Until recently, few Americans would have known much about the Schweinwald Festival, tucked away in Germany near all those castles, overlooked in the brochures between more famous festivals in Salzburg and Bayreuth. It was primarily an opera festival but also included chamber music, choral and organ performances scattered across the region. Usually, the people who went to Bayreuth avoided Schweinwald because the repertoire was too modern, for the most part; those who went to Salzburg found its provincialism trite if not outmoded.

Since the area was already littered with several of the most fabulous castles in Germany, many the legacy of Mad King Ludwig who at first threatened to ruin his kingdom’s finances, tourists from around the world now wandered around Bavaria, gawking at the scenery and leaving behind lots of cash.

In fact, tourism had become such a major industry in the Bavarian economy, one of the finance minister’s assistants back in the early 1960s, a young man named Karl August von Falkenstein whose once noble family lived south of Munich, devised a plan to present operas at one of these castles. Unfortunately, the general wear-and-tear of a festival being deemed unrealistic, young Falkenstein became old Falkenstein by the time he decided, having his own castle, why not put on his own festival?

Technically Schloss Schweinwald was no longer his and it had fallen in such disrepair since his ancestor Johann Wilhelm von Falkenstein had converted it into a music school in the 1840s, it was dismissed as an iconic ruin suitable for little more than being a picturesque backdrop in horror films. But still, it could be useful in the greater scheme of things and so he began working with the local tourist boards in trying to organize a festival of many facets. Dress children up in folk costumes, get people to dance around the town square and show off buildings with little more value than their age, and the tourists would come running. And each summer, he would mount one “Gothic horror opera” in the courtyard of the ruins of Castle Schweinwald.

There would be small-scale operas by Mozart in the Theatersaal of Ottobeuren’s magnificent Kloster with young singers from the Munich conservatory eager for the experience, choral and organ music in its sanctuary, and chamber music concerts in the opulent rooms of the Prince Abbot’s Residentzplatz in Kempten, just down the road. Throw in some festivities honoring Saint Gummerus, the Patron Saint of Cowherds, offering tourists beer at inflated prices and tours of the more picturesque local farms, and it was a given.

After hiring cousin Berthe who’d once been the equivalent of a student intern to the Director’s Assistant at Bayreuth, the biggest expense for the “Schlossoper” was the tent covering the courtyard. The production of Spohr’s Faust was such a success, they had to add two performances, much to everybody’s delight.

Falkenstein had chosen this opera carefully because it was really the first “Gothic horror opera” (since everybody else did Freischütz), considering when Johann Wilhelm had founded his conservatory, he’d asked Ludwig Spohr, regarded by most music-lovers as the foremost living composer of his time, to be the Schweinwald Academy’s first director.

After several seasons, the festival became such a success, they started talking about centralizing everything in a new building, a Festspielhaus built where once the old Falkenstein Farm had proudly stood.

It was the brilliantly designed Festspielhaus that finally put Schweinwald on the map – or rather the map of critical awareness – realizing generations of Falkenstein dreams about creating something of long-lasting cultural grandeur, and with its opening, Schweinwald went from being a pleasant provincial summer festival to something that commanded international attention. When officials argued about the expense, Falkenstein pointed out how much more expensive it was to renovate the castle: “at that price, one might as well build a brand new one!”

Unfortunately, turning Schloss Schweinwald into backdrops for Hans Heiling and Der Vampyr had taken its toll on Falkenstein’s health, a severe heart attack hospitalizing him two weeks before the building’s completion. Years of dreaming, planning and scraping along, keeping his vision alive, ended with a final tour in his wheelchair.

Karl August Falkenstein, the last of his line, died in his sleep days before his festival’s new home opened, its new production of Spohr’s Faust directed again by Cousin Berthe von Krapfenwald who in the interim became a more experienced, now famous director of opera, despite being an infamously inefficient administrator. No one else was surprised Falkenstein had appointed his brother-in-law, Franz-Dieter Zeitgeist, his successor, an established composer turned proficient assistant, but Cousin Berthe still resented being passed over by the older generation.

It was bad enough, Berthe complained vociferously, that they’d expanded the season, then brought in Prosenius Schwertbaum as guest director for the festival’s major production of Schoenberg’s monumental Moses und Aron, Falkenstein, ever the businessman, fully aware of the bargain hiring Schwertbaum’s brother Siegfried to sing the role of Aron, despite the brothers' constant arguing about interpretations. The significance of the opera’s being incomplete was lost on no one – how, like Moses, Falkenstein had not lived to see the Promised Land.

But this new phase of the festival’s continuing history also proved to be a success in the long run, renewing the plans to realize the original vision of re-opening the Academy. Now, they talked of a Falkenstein Curse, Zeitgeist having died months before the new Academy Building could be unveiled.

= = = = = = = 
To be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

The novel, The Lost Chord, is a music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2014

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 2 (Part 2)

The Lost Chord

(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, Kerr reminisces about his childhood friendship with Robertson Sullivan.
= = = = = = =

CHAPTER 2 (continued...)

Another commotion in the entryway turned heads again, briefly interrupting conversations from one end of the room to the other. Even with my back to the door, I sensed somebody of importance. Everyone else turned around as if on cue to see for themselves: who could be making such an entrance? I didn’t see anyone, not at first, and still couldn’t see who it might be after craning my neck, with all the men suddenly crowding around trying to get a glimpse.

“Are we expecting a visit from a movie star? I hadn’t heard anything about someone shooting a film nearby.” I was imagining perhaps Angelina Jolie as Clara Schumann in Girl-Composer Interrupted.”

“No, but you’re close,” Felice chuckled, nodding over at Robertson’s smiling face, from where he had a clearer view.

The anticipation reminded me of the President’s arrival in the crowded Senate chamber for his State of the Union address: even knowing who it was, you still waited to catch a glimpse. But I doubted Barak Obama would be here to talk about creating jobs with a bunch of creative artists.

Meanwhile, Porgia Moore motioned toward the head table where friends were beckoning. “I’ll see you guys after the dinner,” she said, taking her leave, and off she sailed into the crowd.

At the entrance, the center of attention appeared to be a short woman with dark, close-cropped hair before heads immediately turned, looking further back to see who the fuss was about. This, I instantly recognized, was my dear old friend, Sherry Vari, a composer who’d made it big only recently. She caught my eye as soon as she looked around the room, laughing and pretending to be so completely overwhelmed by all the commotion, amused it was not, unfortunately, for her.

“I haven’t had a welcome like that since my last premiere with the New York Philharmonic,” she said breathlessly. She reached our table otherwise unnoticed, sharing hugs with each of us. (I explained to Cameron her only performance with the Philharmonic had infamously ended in a cascading round of cat-calls.)

Sherry had no idea who was following her – or, she laughed, correcting herself, who in the world she was preceding – and, once introduced to Cameron, turned her attention back to the doorway. I almost expected she would clamber up on one of the chairs so she could get a better view.

“Very striking, not someone you’d expect to create such an entrance but one who was quite resigned to it,” she confided to Cameron who looked around, appearing very puzzled by everything.

I saw her hair first, beautifully coiffed and swept up in a way it looked both stylish and casual, blonde but naturally blonde, obvious even from this distance; indeed, “very striking.”

Talking to someone on her right, her face was almost completely obscured. When she turned, I knew her immediately.

One of the last times I'd seen her was at Rob’s wedding, unable to control our fits of giggles trying to remain serious in light of our mutual reservations about the match, I was convinced it was only a matter of time before we’d be unceremoniously escorted out of the church.

My friends at the table were still unaware of who she was or what the fuss was all about.

“That,” I explained, “is Rob’s cousin, the beautiful and charismatic LauraLynn Harty.”

This revelation might not have meant anything to my companions but it opened up a world of significance for me, bringing back memories of my childhood vacationing in Maine among Rob’s family. During that second summer, my “long holiday” overlapped briefly with the Harty cousins’ visit, relatives of Rob’s mother, Mabel. Rob joked they were considered “distant relations” mostly because they lived so far away, rarely coming East from Chicago, but also because once they did arrive they couldn’t be distant enough.

While Cousin Oliver might have been a trial to deal with, his daughter LauraLynn was charming and universally welcomed, fine with Rob if they’d drop her off and keep on going. That summer they planned on only two weeks with LauraLynn staying behind while they traveled to Boston and Montreal.

Younger than Rob and I, around fifteen years old then, she was self-assured and musically talented but far from arrogant; fair-haired and surprisingly modest, considering her dark-haired, braggart parents and obnoxious brother. While Dilbert, who was only six, was left to annoy the younger children, Rob, LauraLynn and I became inseparable. We’d roam about the island, happily seeking out quiet places to watch the ocean and talk about important things, and I think I fell a little bit in love with her.

We often took turns playing piano duets usually for our own enjoyment, since the adults found it so boring. We were often digging around to try and find things to play. Rob found a dusty old box of sheet music that belonged to their great-grandfather, a composer named Harrison Harty. There was a collection of four-hand pieces by Robert Schumann (“for little and big children”) which proved mildly diverting but inside it we found a set of variations by Clara Schumann.

Knowing nothing about her, we found a book of composers’ biographies in the library with a few small paragraphs, mentioned as the wife of Robert Schumann and a friend of Brahms. It annoyed LauraLynn that Clara, over-looked, existed not on her own but only as an accessory to two men.

In one of our conversations under a favorite pine tree, this scraggly crown atop some pile of boulders that overlooked the bay, Rob inevitably brought up his infatuation with his muse, Beatrice, how she inspired him every day whenever he practiced or composed or would just sit there listening to music. He could understand how it worked for Schumann and for Brahms, too, each one being in love with Clara, each one regarding her as his muse, inspiring his music for eternity.

I only rolled my eyes but I remember how LauraLynn, complaining about Rob’s endless ruminations on his would-be girlfriend, thought it was very unfair to be taking such advantage of her, using Beatrice like Schumann and Brahms had used Clara like vampires: and what did she get out of it?

It wasn’t as if we hadn’t tried to warn Rob, how he wasn’t seeing her for herself, superimposing his imagination – what he saw as her inspiration – on Beatrice, ignoring her own identity. Musically illiterate – the most polite way of putting it – how could she ever be the guide Clara had been?

Granted, we agreed, she was a very pretty girl, but Rob forgot Dante found himself inspired by his Beatrice who, in reality, he’d only ever met twice in his entire lifetime.

LauraLynn’s advice – and this, coming from a fifteen-year-old – was to marry someone he loved for herself but keep Beatrice the Muse alive, if he had to, only distantly in his imagination, since Muses were often, historically, unavailable women, someone already married, perhaps to a best friend, unattainable yet utterly private. But Rob argued, getting quite heated about it, Beatrice Porter was not unavailable, was not married and perfectly attainable. And if Robert Schumann married his muse, why couldn’t he marry Beatrice?

At that moment, Rob recognized another coincidence that fatalistically sealed his decision, that he and Schumann shared their initials. Had Beatrice Porter been Clara Porter, he would only be more convinced.

For such a brilliant, mathematical mind, this seemed such a foolish superstition. LauraLynn and I quickly dropped any opposition.

The relationship between an artist and his muse, when you consider human nature in general and a creative one specifically, was a very complex one, easily damaged, requiring a jeweler’s delicate touch, but we were too young then, too thoroughly idealistic to do anything more than make a hash of it. Only the slightest strain here could cause the tiniest of fractures there, soon reverberating across the entire fragile structure until the balance was off and the inspiration, most likely, with it.

But looking back on it – at the wedding that took place (finally) five years later and since – weren’t both LauraLynn and I a little jealous of Beatrice’s getting in the way? In our own uniquely, clumsily triangulated manner, hadn’t we almost managed creating our own Robert, Clara and Johannes Circle?

Perhaps the fault was Rob’s for single-mindedly setting out to attain a goal, the successful businessman, the spoiled rich kid. He probably simply overwhelmed her, all this unintelligible talk of inspiration aside. And yet it might have worked as a marriage if their daily realities hadn’t interfered with his ideal perceptions.

If LauraLynn became Clara to Rob's Schumann, wouldn’t they have made the better pair as artist-and-muse if not husband-and-wife? And given the unattainable LauraLynn, didn’t she become muse to my Petrarch?

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Rob, looking back at me with a quick conspiratorial wink, interrupted his conversation to cut his way through the crowd and retrieve his cousin from the throng that continued blocking her entrance. She wasn’t flustered by the attention nor was she annoyed by it, taking it in with only slight embarrassment.

Sherry and Felice looked her over approvingly, comparing notes in more detail than any man could be bothered with, noting her long turquoise cardigan by Eileen Fisher and fawn-colored Prada slacks.

“Oh, it’s been too many years,” she said, once I’d navigated a path between tables to meet them half-way.

Hugs were traded and we politely kissed each other on the cheek. The three of us holding hands again, our little circle from childhood was magically reunited after almost forty-five years.

Since she’d moved to Europe, there have been few opportunities to visit, time and distance compounding already incongruously tight schedules.

“We’ve seen each other only three times since the wedding,” I said.

She looked momentarily confused, glancing at Rob.

“Oh, that wedding,” she laughed. “I thought you’d meant the one where...”

I apologized, forgetting that their Aunt Katie died last year, gunned down at the reception after her granddaughter’s wedding. A bizarre break-in gone bad, LauraLynn had seen everything as it unfolded.

“Could Laura sit at your table?” Rob hurriedly interrupted us, looking around. “Do you have room for one more? That way, you two can catch up a while, during the dinner.”

Felice was the first to extend the invitation, filling out a table set for six but lacking one person.

“That’s great,” she said, finding the symmetry of everything complete and satisfactory. “Sol and I are one couple, then you two singles and,” eyeing up Cameron and me, “you two guys.” She had everything arranged with Sherry next to Sol, LauraLynn next to her, and “us two guys” directly opposite, resisting the temptation to break up Cameron and me for “boy-girl” balance.

“Let me introduce Laura to a few friends over here,” Rob said, guiding her away while pulling me along.

Once he’d settled her with a publisher-friend he wanted her to meet, Rob turned to me and said we had to make sure there was time for a long talk after dinner: he’d be leaving for Germany first thing in the morning, catching a flight out of New York for Munich.

“It’s been so crazy, finishing the opera, then totally rewriting the ending.”

“But you did finish it, you said…?”

“Finished proof-reading the orchestration this afternoon,” Rob said, more relieved than proud.

The opera was scheduled to premiere in just over a month, set to end the summer festival at Schweinwald. Vocal rehearsals had already started when he decided to change the ending. It involved totally rewriting the final scene, but Zeitgeist, Schweinwald’s director, had told him to go ahead with it.

He hadn’t thought, on top of everything else, he would be dealing with Zeitgeist’s death in that skiing accident, either, flying back for his funeral, then being elected his successor, equally unexpected. Franz-Dieter had been a close friend and mentor to him for many years: his loss was proving very difficult.

“The last thing I needed was getting involved in running the festival: most of it’s in place, moving smoothly, but there’s a lot that has to be finalized for the fall…”

Rob paused while he smiled and waved to someone behind me before he continued, lowering his voice to a near-whisper, then leaning in closer to my ear so he couldn’t be overheard.

“And much of the problem, right now,” he continued, “is settling everything for next summer’s festival, which isn’t easy.”

He explained some of the political in-fighting on the board, strong opposition to what had been Franz-Dieter's big changes – the school, the composers’ colony – things that the earlier board had embraced.

“The problem is, last fall, several board members had to be replaced and now a lot of the new ones find such moves controversial and they’ve been digging in their heels.”

“Controversial? What could be so controversial about things like that?” I wondered.

“What with the economic problems and all…”

“Who’s running the show while you’re over here?”

“Franz-Dieter’s assistant was this guy, V.C. D’Arcy, a composer turned arts administrator. I’ve kept him on as my assistant and named him Acting Director. He’s a good guy, knows how to get things done, and fortunately he’s somebody I feel I can trust.”

I remembered that night Rob called me out of the blue when we patched things up after his divorce, how one of the things he needed was someone he could trust.

“The new board president, just elected after Franz-Dieter’s death, is this bean counter, Scarpia – Barry Scarpia. Ring a bell?”

I told him it didn’t but then I wondered why should it?

“It’s not like there’s any reason you’d be aware of European businessmen but then Laura remembers something vaguely shady.”

“You mean like government corruption?” I couldn’t imagine anyone getting rich quick on kickbacks from those lucrative opera commissions.

“She can’t put her finger on anything but I thought if you’d…”

I put up my hand to protest I was never very good with political in-fighting which had basically ruined my first job and gotten me in trouble in my last two.

“Terry, I just need to talk to someone else so I don’t think I’m being – you know – paranoid.”


“I mean, the whole process was so hurried, after Zeitgeist died, appointing me the new director – not even as interim director while they carried out a proper search for an official one.”

Rob Sullivan was never one to fall for conspiracy theories before, so I wondered what was bothering him, now.

“But it makes sense, no? You were a close associate of Franz-Dieter's, so you could carry on his legacy. Plus you have an administrative, financial background and you’re a recognized composer.”

“If they wanted to carry on Zeitgeist’s legacy,” Rob pointed out, “they could’ve elevated D’Arcy to the corner office – he’s not just assistant material only: quite capable in his own right.”

“But you do have more name recognition – and, well… you are wealthy. D’Arcy’s only a mid-level, middle class bureaucrat?”

Perhaps he took that as a slap at money having privileges when I only meant Rob would have more in common with the major donors any organization needed to attract these days, because he ignored my comment and without hesitating, quickly changed the subject, barreling right along, given our limited time.

I saw his mind coursing through hastily condensed bullet points, leaving no time for any thorough discussion or disagreement, uncomfortable enough with mentioning them in the middle of a crowded room.

“When I told Franz-Dieter I wanted to rewrite the opera’s final scene – it was almost finished, then – he turned pale because, he said, understandably, it was too late to postpone it. But I had to do it and I knew I could get it done in time – so did he.”

“But why change it so late in the game?” I asked. “Wasn’t the premiere scheduled as late as possible?”

“It didn’t work for me: the new ending…? That’s a real zinger.”

“So that’s what got you thinking, if they made you the director, there wouldn’t be time to finish it?”

I saw he was reluctant to admit it, but he nodded imperceptibly.

“You think someone’s really trying to cancel your opera?” It sounded far-fetched.

Rob frowned and just shrugged his shoulders.

“In fact, Barry – Mr. Scarpia – had pointed out the weakness to me when I was talking through it for the board committee, so in a sense he’d be responsible for the delay.” Meanwhile, Rob started patting down his pockets. “Perhaps they let me go ahead with it just to save face…”

So Franz-Dieter told the singers to continue working on everything they had but not to worry about the ending because, in the great tradition, it would all be ready in time.

“I think Franz-Dieter and Grellmund – the director – were the only ones who knew what I was going to change. The less I told, the better, wanting to keep it a surprise.” He found what he was looking for and held up a single jewel case with a CD-Rom in it.

“Is that the score,” I asked. Amazing, how a full score of an opera, which might take a ream of 17x22” paper, could fit onto a small piece of plastic like that.

He nodded and smiled a little sheepishly. “That’s why I was late coming down, burning it onto the CD-Rom.”

Slipping it back into his inside coat pocket, he said he needed to e-mail it to D’Arcy this evening even though he’ll be flying in with it tomorrow, shrugging his shoulders.

“I know, talk about paranoia, right?” Rob chuckled but looked around cautiously, leading me over to a far corner by the wall, first taking another glass of wine from a passing waiter. “But D’Arcy wanted me to do that: you never know – plane crash, terrorist attack… Well, you get the drift.”

Still nursing my now room-temperature ginger-ale, I lifted my glass in salute. “And congratulations, by the way,” I added. “Last-minute or not, at least now it’s done and on its way.”

“They’ll have their work cut out for them, especially the chorus,” he said, taking a long swig of wine. “I added a lot more for the chorus in the final scene…”

“A big redemption scene?” I smiled. All I knew about it was it’s a re-telling of the Faust Story.

“You’ll find out,” he chuckled. “At least they’re not on stage so they don’t have to worry about memorizing it, much less singing and acting at the same time, dealing with blocking...”

I knew he was tired: he’d been working on the opera for two years, now – he needed a break.

We spent a silent moment looking around, not commenting about the guests though a few times I saw Rob raise his glass to someone – once to his cousin – across the room.

“Franz-Dieter wanted me to go along on that skiing holiday,” Rob started, as if coming back from a dream, “lots of things he said he wanted to talk over with me. There were fine points to be hammered out, general concepts that needed turning into concrete ideas, things like that.”

A working holiday was fine but unfortunately, Rob’s primary job at the moment was completing his opera on time. Most of it, he said, was already in his head, but still…

“Oh sure, he told me, ‘You can still work all morning, then ski all afternoon and party all evening!’ But he knew I needed to be composing morning, noon and night.”

I still couldn’t imagine writing that much music in just six weeks.

“What’s the opera’s title, again?”

“Faustus, Inc.”

The headwaiter, the one who’d been so rudely dismissive of me when I first arrived, discreetly sidled up to Rob, whispering something in his ear about being ready to start serving soon.

“There’s not much time left for us to talk, right now,” Rob said turning to me. “Where to start…?”

The night before Rob left to come home, he and Franz-Dieter had dinner at their favorite little restaurant, a quiet up-scale place called 'Die Wolfsschlucht' or 'The Wolf's Glen' in nearby Ottobeuren.

“In fact, now that I think of it, I’ll take you there when you come over for the premiere.”

I started explaining that was hardly in my budget, as much as I’d love to be there but Rob said it was all taken care of, not to worry about it.

“Besides, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about a lot of things since I came back from that funeral, about the importance of friends, especially as far back as we go… Franz-Dieter had been my friend, too, and I realize I took it for granted he would always be there. But there was one thing Zeitgeist mentioned (and only reluctantly) that night: even though he tried to dismiss it, it was disturbing to hear then and it’s haunted me ever since.”

“Haunted you?” My happiness at being invited to his opera’s premiere in Germany was immediately tempered by this new-found seriousness. “What’s haunting you?” All this talk of paranoia: something was bothering him.

More people moved into the dining room; soon we wouldn’t be able to finish this conversation until after dinner.

He’d been working hard, pushing himself to complete a challenging opera – Faust, no less – and then with the death of his friend, Rob could easily use more than just a break.

“Franz-Dieter Zeitgeist would’ve been out there on those slopes holding his own with men younger than me,” he began. “Maybe he was 78 years old but he was in excellent health.”

Then he sighed, telling me he didn’t believe it was an accident.

“You think Zeitgeist was murdered? How? Why?”

“I don’t have anything definite, no clues to prove it, but that night at dinner, he talked of receiving threats, threats that he was very concerned about but didn’t tell anyone else.”

“Why wouldn’t he go to the police? Did he tell you what kind of threats they were? Death threats?”

Rob didn’t answer or maybe even hear my questions. “I just thought he’d been working too hard, you know? The holiday would be good for him – he could use the break.”

“But Rob, how can you be sure it wasn’t an accident – he could’ve had a heart attack or a stroke…” I forgot if he’d told me the cause of death or not.

“No, you see, he was too good a skier for what happened, running off into the trees like that.”

There’d been no witnesses and his body was only found later by a search party when he didn’t return. They said there'd been no other tracks, the autopsy revealing nothing suspicious.

“But I’m convinced it was murder disguised to look like an accident. And now, I’ve gotten some threats, too.” Just then, the signal was given for everyone – finally – to be seated.

Arthur Lemm, tapping Rob on the shoulder, offered him his heart-felt congratulations.

“Well,” Rob told me, “we’ll talk later.”

= = = = = = =
To be continued...

posted by Dick Strawser

The novel, The Lost Chord, is a classical music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2014

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 2 (Part 1)

The Lost Chord

(a classical music appreciation comedy thriller by Richard Alan Strawser: you can read it from the beginning, here.)

In the previous installment, as the dinner at the Benninghurst Artist's Colony was late getting started, we meet various composers like Arthur Lemm and Porgia Moore. Finally, Robertson Sullivan arrives but he doesn't have a chance to talk to Kerr yet.
= = = = = = =


They told us it would be like any other routine elevator ride, just longer, all the way to the top of the Washington Monument, but once there, the view would be spectacular. My fifth-grade class had taken a bus trip to the nation’s capital, just like Rob Sullivan’s class that day. There were lots of us from both classes crammed into that elevator, plus a teacher named Miss Eliza Messerschmidt, a tall hatchet-faced old woman (they say she was probably over 40.) I only knew her by reputation, what my friends had said about her at recess or after school: they called her Sarge and (my luck) she was standing directly behind me. “It's so cramped in here,” I thought. “Why is this bony woman digging her claw-like hands into my shoulders?”

Once they got everybody squeezed in, the door cranked shut and eventually we took off, lurching upwards bit by bit. If we’d all held our breath, they could’ve fit in some more. It didn't feel like there would be any problem as we chugged slowly up through the cold stone needle. But since it was unnatural for kids to be confined and kept virtually immobile for even a few minutes, it didn’t take long till someone became uneasy and several started whimpering.

Then there was a snap, a jolt and the lights flickered out. We had definitely stopped climbing and soon I could feel Miss Messerschmidt's fingernails gradually digging deeper into my skin.

We were stuck and then, after only a few seconds, a low moan started deep inside someone behind me. We wondered what had happened, if were we stuck and how long it would be before we'd be rescued. Someone chanted under her breath “Please, God, I don't want to die.”

Miss Messerschmidt told us to remain still – still?! – but her voice was already quivering. The girls continued whimpering but the guys, for the most part, were taking it all in fun.

One said, “Let’s all jump up and down. That way, we'll get the elevator car unstuck and moving again.”

"Or crashing down 300 feet at an increasingly high rate of speed, you dork!" Rob shouted back at him. "Count on the class idiot to figure out exactly what we shouldn’t do."

The rest of us just stood there rolling our eyes, but then that was about all we could move. I imagined the elevator gaining speed rushing headlong – or feet-first – to ground level, smashing itself flat as a pancake. Judging from Robertson Sullivan's face, he must have already calculated that speed.

Then there was another lurch and suddenly we started to drop, faster this time. Kids had started screaming again. I was quickly losing circulation in my arms from Miss Messerschmidt's grip. She was shouting louder than the rest, “God, we're all gonna die!”

Then suddenly, we jerked to another halt.

Wedged together too tightly to fall down whenever we finally would hit the ground, everyone remained momentarily silent and motionless, listening to cloying melodies wafting over us from the still-functioning sound system. Softly undulating saxophones crooned bad arrangements of tunes anyone who watched the Ed Sullivan Show on television would know.

We each felt the same incredible fear rising from deep inside us, all in a matter of only seconds. Before we knew it, it had happened.

We all started to vomit.

And with that, the elevator, like magic, began to rise once more, slowly at first, then only gradually gaining speed. The lights continued flickering in and out, erratically without any noticeable pattern. Our eyes wide, we absorbed the sounds, the sights and, above all, the smells, standing there ankle-deep in barf. Our shoes and our clothes were thoroughly soaked in the remains of our late-lamented lunch – spaghetti and meatballs hastily devoured at the House of Representative's cafeteria – and also in our hair.

Feeling something dripping down the back of my neck, I hoped to God Miss Messerschmidt was playing that game where someone behind you pretended to crack an egg over your head then, fingers lightly touching your hair, slid them down over your head – but somehow, that didn’t sound like her…

Considering how often the average 5th grader needed to visit the restroom, Miss Messerschmidt probably realized early in her unfolding ordeal the implications of being trapped in an elevator full of them. Regardless of fear’s scientific impact on the control of a child’s bladder, we paused briefly to contemplate dying’s alternative. Undoubtedly a horrible death would appear preferable to riding the bus home as we found ourselves at the moment, and so we reconsidered jumping furiously up and down while yelling “Geronimo!”

The whole way up, the motors grinding and jolting, the muzac continued to play “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Then we’d hear the door scraping, trying to open, never quite succeeding, and the playlist switched to “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” among other tunes before it reached “Unchained Melody.” It wasn't the song itself so much as the sappy arrangement that got the second wave yearning and churning. Before long I could feel the whole process of eruption begin again.

Like musicians responding to a conductor’s cue, everyone else began joining in, until it seemed it would never stop.

It was a half-hour before they could get the door to open.

Someone tried to explain it, how this ever-increasing flow of lava-like puke, seeping under the door, kept shorting circuits.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

How it played out in our minds, that first time we met, may be only slightly different from reality remembered, an elevator ride at the Washington Monument on our fifth grade field-trip where nothing worse than an occasionally flickering light or a momentary jolt threatened to mar an otherwise uneventful climb. But that was what we imagined, sensing how the other saw it, barely stifling fits of giggles until Miss Messerschmidt – or perhaps, the long-suffering Miss Jameson – thought best to separate us.

Rob – who never let on he was “Robertson” unless he absolutely had to – lived outside Yardley, northeast of Philadelphia. Everyone called me Terry, embarrassed at being saddled with “Terrance Richard Kerr.” (Later, in 7th grade, someone thought calling me “Terrier” was pretty funny: that's when I started going by Richard.)

Our fifth-grade teachers had been college roommates who remained long-time best friends, planning annual field-trips as a joint venture, giving us an opportunity to meet some kids from outside our school district. The Doylestown kids, the first on the bus, got the window seats; the Yardley kids sat on the aisle.

I don’t know how it worked out for any of the other students who were paired up so arbitrarily, but Rob and I immediately become good friends, remaining close ever since.

Our birthdays were a day apart, giving him a few hours’ seniority, which, he argued, made him the wiser, more experienced if not better of the two, expert in all things. Living only twenty miles apart, we decided we should stay in contact with frequent phone calls and occasional visits. Since most of our activities involved taking the train into Philadelphia for day-time concerts or going to the library, we could travel separately, meet there and not need to arrange sleep-overs. We’d manage this once every month or so, then I’d stay at his place a few times a year but for two summers I went with his family up to Maine. Rob had always seemed older than me, more mature, but I overheard Mother tell Dad once, “Money buys confidence.”

My parents felt uneasy around him because his family was so wealthy, but to me, he was just Rob Sullivan, never treating us condescendingly or “showing off” when coming over for dinner. He was always polite and friendly toward them as I never tried to be obsequious and condescending to his. It wasn’t like they pretended to be someone they weren’t because he was rich and were seeking his approval, but there were times when Dad said things that made me cringe.

His parents, for their part, tolerated me as one of Robbie’s musician friends (read, “poor”) and therefore probably safe but I could hardly wait till dinner at the Sullivans was over – too many forks, I would joke – when we would hide in the library and listen to his dad’s recordings.

That second summer in Maine was for me something of an eye-opener. While the earlier summer I had been one of many visitors allowed on the island for my allotted holiday week, three years later I had been invited for a whole month, apparently having passed some test of his parents. They came, I think, to resent the casualness I exhibited with everyone, as if I didn’t know my place: if Rob and I remained warm, with his parents things chilled considerably.

The differences between us didn’t develop until later, during our senior year, his parents’ indifference toward me no doubt helping. He now had other friends, new satellites demanding more of his attention. We’d known each other as close friends for six years, growing up together (perhaps only me in his orbit). This direction – purposeful and career-bound – was a time for serious refocus, making new choices and determinations about his life. Wasn’t it enough to choose between his music and the family business? It’s not that he had to choose among friends: it happened naturally, like a process of attrition, thinking scientifically. Growing apart, at the time, became logical, as inevitable as growing together. And it wasn’t a sudden break, either, at least not at first, spending less, then even less time together.

A few months before that summer in Maine, Rob met a girl – “the” girl, as he described her – named Beatrice who was very attractive, and together they’d looked like a nice couple. Since he’d been studying Dante and Petrarch in literature class that spring, she became “his” Beatrice, his own muse. While I didn’t find her particularly inspiring beyond being a pretty girl, there was nothing musical about Beatrice Porter that explained why someone talented like Rob saw her as a muse.

I could understand his falling in love, that much was a given, but as I also pointed out that summer a muse by definition was someone who inspired you from afar. He could fall in love with her, I argued, but don’t be so fatalistic about her role as Muse. When school resumed that fall, Rob and Beatrice dated a few times until she eventually decided to “go steady” with another boy, a star on the basketball team named Donald Taylor.

“Oooh,” I remembered joking with him, trying to lighten his loss, “Dante Lore! Well, so much for being fatalistic.” He gave me more of a dismissive snort than a relieved laugh. It may not have been rocket science but I felt sure he blamed me, somehow, for their breaking up.

Other things interfered by the time we graduated. He was going to Harvard to study finance and I was not. My grades were good; his were brilliant, the issue of money aside. I didn’t need ‘brilliant’ to get into a decent college music department, more realistic and affordable than a conservatory. I wanted something that would give me a more solid, well-rounded education if specializing in composition didn’t work out. Rob saw that as my admission to not working hard enough before.

And perhaps I hadn’t, but then he was the one who was “giving up” music despite his hard work. I could still make up lost ground if I worked hard, now. Eventually, Rob took on a music minor, then earned his Harvard degree, realizing music was his preference, not finance.

With this new-found determination, he attended a reunion where he saw Beatrice who’d gone through several boyfriends since Don Taylor. Fate or coincidence, they were soon dating, then engaged and finally married. Perhaps because I was right, Mrs. Beatrice Sullivan understandably never liked me. Rob and I rarely kept in touch.

Much damage had been done in those long years before the divorce, happening only months before his father died. After hearing my wife had just died, too, he got in touch.

The most difficult part of our reconnecting was his making the call, he said, not just thinking about it, procrastinating, opting instead for an immediate response than waiting impatiently for a reply: letters were more difficult to compose and, besides, they tended to get lost in the mail or thrown away. It had been a grey and aimless morning when he called me, while I was still moping around helplessly in that guilt-ridden fog Sondra’s death months earlier had left me in. I couldn’t say I was saddened or relieved over his divorce except to understand the disruption to his life but genuinely sorry he was also suddenly dealing with his father’s loss. Taking care of some unpleasant business at the old house in Yardley, he wondered if I’d mind coming over.

I’d not been following his career that closely, beyond teaching at Juilliard with several prestigious premieres recently, mostly in Europe. I’d bought a couple of his recordings when they first came out. He’d become that famous composer, someone I’d once known as a kid. How did one fill in the gaps? We renewed our friendship gradually, visiting occasionally, talking mostly about “what makes music tick” like we’d done years ago. It surprised me when he said he needs someone he can trust.

Earlier that May, he’d arrived at Benninghurst and immediately got down to the urgent work of finishing the opera, too busy for a visit and then dealing with Franz-Dieter’s unexpected death.

“Hi, it’s Rob – Sullivan… I’m checking in from London. Yeah, I know… on my way back from Dieter's funeral...”

I picked up quickly before he could hang up. “Hi, how’re you? Maybe we could meet at the airport?”

“That’s a good idea but they rerouted me through London into Boston.”

He’d be back at Benninghurst soon and suggested coming down to my place over the weekend, maybe for dinner.

“Sure,” I said, “Good to see you. My schedule’s open, so any…”

“I’m sorry, have to go now, something…” He paused. “I’ll talk to you later.” And then he hung up.

= = = = = = =
To be continued...

- posted by Dick Strawser

The novel, The Lost Chord, is a music appreciation comedy thriller completed in 2013, and is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2014