Monday, September 08, 2014

The Lost Chord: Act I, Chapter 1 (Part 1)

In the first installment - the 'Overture,' which you can read here - a fellow calling himself Tr'iTone recalls hearing Robertson Sullivan give an inspiring talk and how he resolved to study with him but found it less than satisfactory. Meanwhile, Dr. T. Richard Kerr, along with his assistant Cameron Pierce. is going to a dinner at the Benninghurst Colony in honor of his friend Robertson Sullivan. As Sullivan prepares himself for the dinner, having just finished his new opera, Tr'iTone is preparing to teach his former professor a lesson.

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A perfectly ordinary man getting out of the car: I was sure that’s how others would see me, people looking around, wondering who was who as everyone gathered gradually for the dinner. We weren’t as late as I thought but still, I wanted to hurry past this gauntlet and get inside. After all, it wasn’t like I was anybody. If it hadn’t been a chance to see my friend before he left for Europe, I couldn’t imagine why I’d be here, otherwise. Benninghurst was an old-fashioned artist’s colony, a bit of New England tucked away in the Poconos, a place where creative minds gathered for peace and quiet taking time away from reality. A coal baron’s mansion, it had been purchased and converted when no other family was left to claim it. Stepping up onto the porch and looking out at a flock of crows assembling in some distant trees, I wondered why it had been so long since I last came here, myself. I remembered vividly when I first stayed, what I wrote, how young I had been then, thirty years ago. But then there hadn’t been much need in recent years, considering the house I lived in with its own brand of peace and quiet if I ever felt like composing again.

It would have been nice to take a walk before dinner as I’d done every day the times I stayed here – always after breakfast; that was all part of the regimen. The woods and paths surrounding the place were probably half its charm, a great way to relax the mind. If we’d left earlier, perhaps... but Cameron missed his train from Philadelphia, one of those things that kept compounding, a little delay here and another one there and before long – voilá! And if we’d been on time, we would have missed that near-accident, coming around the bend near the driveway, the car ahead swerving to miss somebody rushing out of the woods. It was strange, whatever he was doing there, I thought, catching my breath; nowhere near the parking lot, yet.

But tonight, Benninghurst was anything but its usual peaceful, quiet self, all these people milling about, chatting and drinking, annoying, I’d imagine, to any resident not invited to the evening’s social whirl. At least it was the dinner break, so no one should feel slighted if they were unable to work. The front parlor, a large spacious room, was already crowded with people; the hallway toward the dining room, jammed. Someone with a name-tag checked our invitations, pointing the way to somewhere. They’ve hosted this kind of reception before, occasionally honoring an artist, a past resident who’s won a major prize, or celebrating a contributor after having given the colony a generous gift. In fact, the last time I was here, it was for Howard Zenn who’d won a Pulitzer that year.

Despite being an informal affair, people shuffled about in tuxedos or unseasonably long dresses while others sported turtlenecks and jeans. This wide array of fashion styles aside, I still felt inadequately dressed. A few of the more iconoclastic guests, it being summer, stood out in their Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts. But looking around among the half-smiling faces, I saw no sign of tonight’s special guest, my friend Robertson Sullivan, and I kept wondering what he’d wanted to talk about so urgently.

It was daunting, looking at famous faces I recognized but didn’t know, trying to resist walking around gawking at them, the giddy sensation of being a fan among celebrities, pointing at everybody. There were few others here who were not composers or their agents beyond a handful of critics or publishers, many of whom I’d been introduced to over years of attending concerts, meeting them backstage for a quick handshake, especially during the years I was living closer to New York City. But since it was difficult to experience much by the younger composers, I found myself discovering more about the up-coming generation from reading some on-line reviews and following new music blogs: with recording contracts disappearing and most radio stations opting for safer programming, I rarely heard anything considered truly new. I estimated the composers I saw here, like the infamously generic classical concert audience, were also mostly gray and aging, very few under forty and many of them my age or older, making me wonder, if we couldn’t revitalize the species, didn’t we risk dying out like some antiquated celibate sect? If creativity wasn’t fragile enough – no one knew that better than I – whimsically coming and going with complete disregard, posterity was even more fickle: who’d survive the cut to achieve greatness?

What was taking Cameron so long? It felt like I’d been standing around by myself for almost a half-hour, only turning in my invitation or picking up a glass of ginger-ale, glancing back and forth from my corner as I nursed a drink I hoped would be mistaken for champagne. Otherwise, I was beginning to feel invisible again – both annoying and comforting – until someone discretely tapped a delicate bell (who was it mentioned Anna Pavlova’s dogs?) and everyone started to move.

As I reached the doorway of the larger dining room, I heard the familiar, grating voice of Arthur Lemm, a composer still riding high on his most recent installment of fame and who proceeded to work his way through the room, shaking hands as if he were the evening's master-of-ceremonies.

Retreating into my alcove again, hoping to avoid him, I bumped into a waiter scurrying past, nearly spilling my drink, and apologized to him before asking about any assigned seating for dinner, while I clung to the alcove as the safest place to wait, seeing anybody who'd enter the dining room.

“I’m a friend of Robertson Sullivan’s and I was wondering,” I began before he interrupted me with a nod to inform me that everyone here was a friend of Robertson Sullivan’s.

A man sporting a name-tag beckoned the waiter away before introducing himself, saving me the trouble of reading it since he was standing too close for my bifocular eyes to manage. Taller than me by a head, it was uncomfortable staring at his throat or, worse, looking up his nose. This, however, was the famous Wizard of Benninghurst, Sidney Drummoyne, a man in his mid-40s whose exotic Australian accent and dashing good looks doubtless worked wonders for his role as chief fund-raiser. The young woman coming up beside him who could have been his wife was actually his assistant, Henrietta Darlinghurst. They were pleased to meet me, glad I’d come and amazed to see so much talent in one room. Meanwhile, I suspected he was unsuccessful figuring out if I was anybody.

Hoping to make conversation, difficult to hear as the noise became louder, I told him it had been years since the last time I had stayed at Benninghurst as a resident. In fact there’d been just such a dinner then honoring Howard Zenn and his Pulitzer when he’d turned 70.

“Ah, that was, what, twenty years ago,” he said, treating me as if I were a delicate historical artifact. “Amazing to realize he’s just turned 90 and still very busy composing.”

I congratulated him on turning everything around after the decline following September 11th, managing some much needed structural renovations. He said the biggest problem now was some robber baron’s land grab.

“What does he plan on doing, here, turn this into a casino?”

He grimaced and shook his head. “Worse...”

Before he could elaborate, Drummoyne patted my shoulder and graciously excused himself, the busy director whose chief responsibility this evening was making himself pleasant, shaking hands with as many guests as possible, his otherwise wordless assistant smiling and disappearing in the wake behind him, the crowd parting as onward he sailed.

My view momentarily cleared as I wondered if anybody had ever done a study relating a composer’s height to characteristics of style or levels of accomplishment, when I noticed someone waving. They were actually people I knew, who, after I’d looked over my shoulder, appeared to be waving at me. It was perhaps ten years since I’d last seen either of them, both eagerly motioning for me to join them, pleased they’d snagged a table near the middle of the room. Though both older than me by a few years, their collective vitality and general optimism made them appear considerably younger which explained why I’d found them exhausting as I approached middle age. I figured an evening with Sol and Felice delRaggio would be bearable (certainly preferable) to sitting off by ourselves. After passing hugs of the long-lost all around, Felice bubbled over Robertson’s appointment as if it were breaking news, making me wonder if I hadn’t overestimated my tolerance for extreme cheerfulness.

Apparently, whoever’s idea it was to entice everybody into the dining room did not mean that the dinner was any closer to beginning (despite their now being almost a half-hour behind schedule), despite there being a bit more room to mill about seeing old friends and being seen by everyone else. This was no longer a serious concern since I brought my assistant Cameron along primarily to take care of the driving whether the evening ran longer than we’d anticipated or not. Since he'd yet managed to make it back from the men’s room, I assumed he either called home to let Dylan know we had arrived safely if not exactly on time or taken one of those tours some helpful staffer arranged for guests and spouses who’ve never been here before. I was tempted to make some excuse to go look for him – being unfamiliar with the place, you know, he might have gotten lost – asking them to hold two seats for us, but the real temptation was to take a quiet walk alone in the yard before sitting down to eat.

“Don’t worry about him; I’m sure he can fend for himself,” Felice said, giving my arm a playful nudge. “It’s unlikely he’d never find his way back once the food arrives.”

Unable to get away, then, I asked a waiter – one more friendly than the last I’d spoken to – to “freshen” my drink, then stood there in the center of the room, looking around and making occasional comments about the other guests as we three caught up on the not-that-distant past. They had retired under better circumstances than I, leaving behind them college careers that had been fulfilling and rewarding whereas I’d become disillusioned and gotten trapped in departmental politics before resigning. There was no need to go into the details so I just said I resigned and ended up working for an arts magazine that went all pop-relevant before laying me off. They were spending their time drifting between visiting a son with grandchildren in California and a daughter in Connecticut.

Sol had never been comfortable being a summertime composer, the process too tedious to accomplish much in the time allotted, tending to specialize in short works for solo instruments or small combinations, plus lots of songs for Felice, a soprano who’d been, in her prime, a significant advocate for new music. But suddenly, with so much time on his hands, he found himself wanting to compose bigger, more involved pieces so he had recently completed a string quartet for his son’s ensemble.

“Now, he’s planning out a concerto for our daughter to play,” Felice said with equal pride and excitement, explaining “she has some concerto dates in Europe over the next few years.”

“You should have stuck with the composing, Richard – such a compelling voice,” Sol said with a twinge of disappointment.

“Oh, look, Sol – here comes Otterby What’s-his-name,” Felice added chirpily though it was hard to tell she hated his music. “I’m surprised Rob would have invited him. Did you ever meet him?”

“Now, Felice, I doubt you’re going to do the honors. Isn’t he a fellow here this month?” he added.

“And right on his heels,” I pointed out, “is Warren Suli Cohen, his polar opposite. This should be interesting.”

“I like Suli's music – very brainy stuff.”

“Sometimes too brainy,” Sol sighed.

Cameron had been well aware of my discomfort on the drive up which I tried excusing as back trouble but which he knew was my usual social ineptitude manifesting itself in advance, especially knowing I hadn’t wanted to arrive too early, hoping to miss most of the obligatory and annoying socializing. It occurred to me Cameron's being late, which I’d also found annoying, may have been part of a plan to miss even more of what was already going to be trying. We had only met not quite a year ago during that strange evening at the Crevecoeurs – speaking of trying – but already he understood my foibles and generally accepted them with equanimity, and I joked he was becoming more quickly my therapist and care-giver as easily as he was my assistant.

I would never have canceled the trip just to avoid it, however tempting, because I really did want to see Rob who was quite intense about talking with me before he left. He never said what it was about, but looking around and not finding him only increased my increasing anxiety. I told myself it wasn’t anything serious, despite his mysteriousness about it: why should I be concerned, after all? He’d finished an opera and just wanted to show it to me.

Felice prodded me, pointing to the corner where Suli Cohen, in the shadow of a potted ficus, talked with a large-built man wearing a brown suit, having an apparently intense conversation.

“Do you know who that is, Richard? Sol can’t remember but he looks confident enough he should be someone.”

“The last thing I need,” I said, turning my back on them, “is some ridiculous debate about aesthetic politics.” I swigged down the last remnants of my ginger-ale with a flourish. “We’re here to celebrate Robertson’s news: it would be nice to put the claws aside for a few hours.” Not very likely that would happen, considering all the powerhouses in attendance.

Drummoyne worked his way around the room but Lemm always managed to keep far enough away to avoid contact.

The constant bickering of the so-called Style Police was another symptom of cultural intransigence, enough to put Washington to shame, with everybody losing sight of the purpose of art under an avalanche just as pompous and over-heated as anything advocates incessantly argued about back in the days of Wagner and Brahms. From Classical and Romantic to Apollonian and Dionysian to Right Brain and Left Brain, we’re now so far apart, this or that, it’s either the Far-Right Brain or the Far-Left Brain.

Before, you’d go to a concert and read the review, dislike the music and maybe disagree with the critic. Today, you can go on-line and voice your opinion with a comment. In fact, you can attack someone as a pedant for being old-fashioned or call him a moron for disagreeing.

Example: we both heard the same performance. To me, the pianist was so technically oriented she missed the music’s essence; to you, her interpretation was pure poetry, her playing flawless and delightful. I thought her Beethoven lacked empathy, her Chopin was loud and flashy; you found her innovative, insightful and brilliant.

Sitting down for a few drinks afterward, is it my right to get up and call you an idiot?

What is the point of having discourse if we treat ourselves discourteously?

Just then, Warren Suli Cohen and his unknown disputant became noticeably louder as their conversation-turned-argument threatened to boil over, territorial aggression met with intransigence before each other’s attempt at intellectual intimidation. If it came to fists as it sometimes did with these displays, my money was on the big guy. A waiter, hovering nearby, walked up with a bottle of wine in hand, apparently offering to freshen their drinks, and calmly managed to defuse the escalation before anything more unpleasant occurred. Both turned and walked away in icy silence as others, tempted to honor the waiter, considered breaking into smatterings of applause had their hands not been preoccupied with drinks and canapés.

For every strong ego, there’s a weaker ego waiting to be shattered. It is as inevitable as the night.

Sol politely excused himself with a knowing wink, nodding toward a gray-haired man in a black turtleneck and blue jeans. Felice told me that was Seth Mazrif who worked for Cooper Publishing. Leaning in confidentially in case anyone else might hear, she said, “Time for him to do a little networking.”

She looked at me with a kind, comforting eye, her tone like a mother patting a shy child’s hand. “It wouldn’t do you any harm, saying hello to a few people.”

“I hardly know anyone here,” I protested a little too weakly, cringing at the idea of glad-handing total strangers. “And those I do know – like yourselves – I haven’t seen in years.” Which was worse, I wondered: talking to strangers or people you’ve met before and hoping they’ve not forgotten you?

“Those songs you wrote for me – the Petrarch sonnets? They were very good, but you never did anything with them.”

“It was unfortunate nobody else wanted them. It’s not very different, now.”

She’d forgotten I’d sent them to Sol’s publisher on his hearty recommendation. “Not interested at this time,” they'd said. In fact, I was pretty sure I’d sent my cello sonata to Mr. Mazrif at Cooper’s years ago, too. His response wasn’t very different, never indicating when they might be interested.

“Ah, here comes Cameron, finally,” I told Felice, nodding toward the doorway. She glanced over then turned back to me with an arched eyebrow as if she’d discovered some deep new secret. I could try explaining he was my assistant but then I’d have to explain why I needed an assistant. Judging by the pleasure this self-induced realization was clearly giving her, it wouldn’t matter what I might have said, but saying nothing didn’t mean she wouldn’t leap to any further conclusions. Never terribly organized regarding the real world, I realized after my wife died I needed help around the house. That didn’t sound convincing to my own ears whenever I explained it so I could imagine someone else’s skepticism, not that either of us really cared, one way or the other.

Cameron became, in a sense, a student of mine and I became, in another, his employer, for what it’s worth. He helped me mostly on weekends, doing yard-work or organizing the bills. He was convinced I was utterly hopeless and found all this amusing, but worked hard and took things seriously. Every visit, we set aside an hour to talk about or listen to music: ostensibly, this was his lesson. And since I’d found myself unemployed, frankly I just enjoyed his company.

“Hi,” he said, cheerily enough, “sorry it took so long. This place is amazing,” he continued. “Look at these,” showing me some pictures he’d taken on his phone – the kitchen, the hallway, the grand staircase, gradually working his way backwards to the view seen from the drive. “Dylan loved them!”

He leaned forward, offering Felice his hand. “I’m Cameron Pierce,” he said warmly but without offering any further detail despite the fact she was obviously bursting with questions best left unasked.

“We were afraid you’d gotten lost,” she said as her husband, in the meantime, started working his way back.

“Lost, dear? I was only right over there,” Sol said, eyes twinkling.

“Not you: Cameron… Richard's friend?” she winked.

“Oh, of course. Hello, finally.”

“No drink?” I asked.

“I’m driving, remember?”

Here I was, drinking ginger-ale and not driving, while Cameron, recently discovering wine was to his liking, couldn’t drink because he was. Plus we wanted to keep some sense of propriety, here. To some, after all, he still looked younger than someone who’d finished his first year of college, perceptions aside. Cameron was attending the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, working for the moment toward a degree in psychology and taking the occasional music course when his schedule (and his adviser) permitted.

A native New Yorker, he and his partner Dylan Sprenkle were living in a nice enough area of the city not far from the university, preferring off-campus independence to the dormitories. Dylan, taking a few generalized freshman courses and doing brilliantly, only recently decided he wanted to major in law.

They made a nice couple, Cameron gaining in maturity over the year he’d been living with Dylan who, for his part, managed to overcome his insecurities to live outside his Asperger’s Syndrome, his parents originally reluctant to let him go to college, living on his own, afraid he couldn’t handle it.

The term “partner,” I thought, sounded much more mature than “boyfriend” and suitably vaguer and more inclusive than “lover.” It shocked Cameron’s parents but Dylan’s welcomed it, a step toward normalcy.

“There’s that guy I met outside the bathroom,” Cameron said, pointing to Arthur Lemm, glad-handing his way around the room. “He seemed pretty intent on striking up a chummy conversation with me.”

“Chummy?” I laughed, turning my back. It was difficult to ignore Lemm was keeping an eye on Cameron’s whereabouts.

Realizing who it was, Cameron understood. “Yeah, I’d heard stories about him.” He was young but not necessarily naïve.

“Naturally, he’d enjoy meeting you – preferably served on a bed of rice…”

Lemm was known in the business as an infamous “manizer” (whatever anyone called the homosexual equivalent of a womanizer), always offering young neophytes a chance to work under a celebrity composer. That choice of preposition was the operative word, the inside joke understood: many, unfortunately, got the joke too late.

It wasn’t that I’d have to “protect” Cameron from the temptation – I knew he was able to fend for himself – but it annoyed me, having to deal with a predator like Lemm. His entourage was full of students or young composers getting started professionally, everything at least above the legal limit.

I, by comparison, was nobody so I rather doubted anyone cared whether Cameron was my assistant or my boy. Being seen with him, though, might still give rise to unwanted rumors.

Cameron and I were soon talking with Sol and Felice when I felt the inevitable tap on the shoulder as Arthur Lemm had quickly found his way over to our table. Nodding to Cameron, he stuck his hand out and grabbed mine before I had a chance to pull back.

“Richard Kerr, isn’t it? Arthur Lemm – how’re you?” he added mock-modestly in case I wouldn’t know who he was. “Aren’t you that dyed-in-the-wool atonalist who was friends with old Sebastian Crevecoeur?”

“Old Sebastian,” who died over twenty-five years ago, had long been a close friend and early mentor of mine. I was surprised and a bit awestruck Lemm even knew my name.

“Written anything lately I would have heard?” Immediately, he turned to Cameron. “And your young friend…?”

“Taken, I’m afraid.”

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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

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