Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 1 (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, Dr. Kerr, accompanied by his assistant Cameron Pierce, has arrived at the Benninghurst Colony for the dinner honoring his friend Robertson Sullivan and runs into some other old friends.
= = = = = = =

CHAPTER 1 (continued...)

It was twenty years since I’d last been a fellow at Benninghurst, the third time I was in residence here. Arthur Lemm had been there my first time, a much-touted, newly-minted celebrity. He held court with a recent string of successful premieres already behind him and impressively only in his mid-20s. You only had to listen to him to realize he would have a most successful career ahead of him, having already mastered the art of self-promotion and understanding its political subtleties. At the time, he was a dyed-in-the-wool serialist like most composers who were teaching in America during the mid-1970s, and had been quite impressed when he discovered I knew Sebastian Crevecoeur. I remember him being very patronizing, looking over my scores one evening and nodding at “immaturities” in my style.

Lemm considered Sebastian a bit old-fashioned – not as old-fashioned as Barber or Copland, still writing in a traditional, tonal style, but, rooted in atonality, never having “evolved” to the next highest level. By the time Sebastian started working more seriously with strict “twelve-tone” techniques, Lemm was already exploring the next fad. Incorporating quotations from Mendelssohn or even Tallis into his music, already the rage in the early-70s, he began producing piano pieces sounding like Schumann was still alive and writing in 1978.

Historically, there may have been the precedent from the 1920’s Grave-Digger’s School of Music when Respighi and Poulenc, among others, found fresh fodder in a wealth of newly re-discovered Baroque music, Stravinsky enjoying his Back-to-Bach movement, even a brief flirtation with a Back-to-Tchaikovsky moment in his ballet, The Fairy’s Kiss. For Lemm, fifty years later, this was like the new Promised Land, and he treated everyone else, especially his old “dyed-in-the-wool serialist” colleagues, as sinners who’d not yet seen the light.

Unlike Stravinsky who always managed to sound like Stravinsky, Lemm sounded like an imitation, insincere – above all, a forger. His students soon tired of getting The New Memo, leaving in droves. His colleagues and most of the traditional avenues they traveled in the New Music World began to shun him.

Fortunately for Lemm, his newly found adaptability replaced the financial need for having students or teaching in a prestigious university, endlessly scouring the countryside for commissions and begging for performances and recordings. Writing faux-Vivaldi for commercials and mass-producing orchestrations for rock stars’ symphonic extravaganzas, he soon crossed over into money-making triumph. He ranted publicly how his detractors were either ignorant snobs because they remained stubbornly oblivious to the people’s pulse or suicidal elitists who insisted on appealing to a narrow intellectual niche.

It didn’t take long before Arthur Lemm attracted the attention of N. Ron Steele’s new music licensing organization, SHMRG, as a way of turning the Classical Division into a self-supporting entity, quickly becoming the company’s official pied piper, enticing new artists and audiences, above all new revenues, into their coffers.

His Piano Concerto, “Pandera’s Box,” based on hits from the ‘80s, worked well for orchestras fearing for their bottom lines, a rousing, otherwise harmless romp momentarily attracting younger listeners into their halls. The ballet, Let It Be, despite costing a fortune procuring the rights for the Beatles’ tunes, was box-office gold.

Lemm exhorted us to reverse the “Greenhouse Effect” universities and conservatories were using to suffocate the modern music world, and break through the “Glass Partition” that threatened to make art irrelevant.

He hardly needed Benninghurst any more to get away from it all now that he owned a penthouse in Manhattan, a villa in southern France and a mountain ranch near Aspen, Colorado, striking his critics as ironic, holing up away from his adoring reality, composing in an old railroad tycoon’s mansion. He accused them of using a double standard in a world where people expected success to lead to excess, since starving in a garret and composing by candle-light were so old-school. For Lemm these days, staying at Benninghurst was more like slumming, his bedroom smaller than his bathroom in Provence, but that, he made it clear, was in no way the point (one could say the same of Robertson Sullivan, for that matter, his fortune inherited from the lords of industry).

Lemm was one of those composers oblivious to distraction who could compose surrounded by chaos on the New York subway, once writing directly into a full score while riding the A Train shown in that scene (no doubt staged) from SHMRG's odiously self-reverential documentary Marketing called “The Wonder of Arthur Lemm.” The peace and monastic quiet of Benninghurst – or his villa in Provence – were immaterial except to delicate creative psyches: typically, Lemm preferred composing in the parlor or even in the kitchen.

It did, however, give him a chance to continue perforating the “Glass Partition” he so hated, even a little, tweaking their collective noses as an establishment outsider in a captive environment. Mellowing with age, he now avoided direct confrontation choosing instead indirect example, flaunting his success, focusing solely on himself. He finally managed, with SHMRG’s help, to get elected to Benninghurt’s Board where his plan was eventually to make the benefits of the colony’s networking available to younger, more like-minded composers.

The Met was considering Lemm’s latest opera, “Survivor,” for its 2016-2017 season and it seemed his Broadway-oriented retooling of the story of Carmen was already making twenty-somethings forget who Bizet was. However, his newest opera, still unfinished, based on the life of Lady Gaga, had already been rejected by Schweinwald.

Certainly this latest news did nothing to endear Robertson Sullivan to him, the tension occasionally spilling over into public snideness, disturbing Rob’s hope for some uninterrupted tranquility during his past month’s residency (at least, Rob told me, the management arranged to have their studios at opposite ends of the sprawling mansion). Tomorrow, Rob would leave for the Schweinwald Festival, its new director, where his own opera – also updating a famous old-fashioned plot – would have its world premiere in a splashy new production. Then Arthur Lemm would be out of Rob's hair for a while, having put the finishing touches on his opera’s newly completed ending, the orchestration only part of the final process. Well, that was the expectation, Rob's goal for this stay at Benninghurst, things very much down to the wire.

Assuming Lemm hoped to keep him from completing his opera on time, arranging his stay knowing Rob would be there, was a matter of conjecture for a mind more paranoid than Rob’s, if the recent death and funeral of his colleague, Franz-Dieter Zeitgeist, his predecessor as Schweinwald’s director, hadn’t been enough. But even if Lemm could manage to break his concentration and diffuse his inspiration with some daily encounter with the Person from Poorlock, that would be enough of a small victory.

And how disappointing it must have been for him, momentarily, when Cameron turned out not to be a composer, a potential new convert Lemm could woo away from my decadent atonality. But Cameron was gracious enough to act “charmed,” meeting a famous composer, as he wandered off to another table. In fact, Cameron was in awe of just being in a room with so many composers, famous or otherwise: he could sense this powerful surge of creativity hanging in the air.

“Do you think any of this genius will rub off on me,” Cameron wondered, “and I’ll become a composer?”

“I’ll let you know if I feel more creative in the morning.” I handed him a glass of bubbling ginger-ale and, with a toast, sighed, “if it were only that easy.”

Disappointed that genius wasn’t a matter of osmosis or that it wasn’t champagne in his glass, Cameron looked around inquisitively, asking occasionally who this one was or who that one might be.

“I’ve hung around composers all my life,” I wanted to tell him, “but it didn’t turn me into one.”

It might give you the dream or even the incentive but you still had to do all the work. Believe me, I thought, it would make teaching a lot less painful.

“You didn’t feel any different when we came back from New Coalton last summer, right?” I whispered to him, recalling this vague buzz-word from an adventure more dream-like than anything dreamt.

“I don’t know what I felt after we left there,” he said, looking into his glass for an answer.

It was like something we didn’t want to discuss because it might force us to admit it had never happened, instead sweeping it under the nearest rug and pretending a certain indifference.

“Do you still have the letter, the one Beethoven had given you?” It had all been very confusing, then.

“Yeah, it’s in a safe-deposit box in my parents’ bank,” he said. “I figured I’d wait a few years. I’m guessing when I go get it, it probably won’t be there.”

There was a man standing in the doorway, nondescript in appearance except for being the only African-American in the room, who looked around while taking this blackberry-like device out of his ear, tapping it a few times and then twisting it back into position – battery trouble? wrong number? perhaps some spam? He cautiously took a drink from a waiter, sniffing it before handing it back, exchanged it for something else, then settled back into a nearby corner, glancing frequently in our direction.

Imagination was a powerful thing, I thought, turning Cameron away to protect him from another potential predator like Lemm. Eventually, the man took the hint and avoided looking over at us. I started wondering if I wasn’t imagining this as much as I might have imagined everything at New Coalton.

“Maybe I should go check on it, when I get back to New York next week,” Cameron said, turning around.

“Check on what, Cameron,” I asked absent-mindedly.

“You know, on Beethoven’s letter…?” The bank, he explained, was half-way between his folks’ place and Dylan’s, just a block out of his way.

“Shhh,” I cautioned him, “you don’t want anyone eavesdropping on us, talking about how Beethoven gave you some letter,” then I chuckled how anyone hearing that would think we were crazy.

If anyone was crazy, I thought, it was Cameron who was, as he described it himself, crazy for Dylan. This week had been tough for them after the semester wrapped up. Dylan had gone home for the summer but Cameron was scheduled to work at the music store through June.
He wasn’t looking forward to being separated from him for a month. In fact, I’d hoped having him come along with me might take his mind off it for the weekend.

There were times Cameron brought Dylan along, coming out to my place, taking him a while to feel comfortable, opening up to a stranger – nothing exactly easy for either of us.

And like today, when they were apart, they’d often text each other.

“Young love,” I thought, “isn’t it grand?”

Dylan Sprenkle was the reason Cameron was planning to major in psychology, eventually focusing on scientific research about Asperger’s Syndrome, perhaps discovering a treatment helping someone like Dylan feel they’re not defective, whether there could ever be a cure for it or at least more awareness that could integrate someone’s “difference.” When he’d confessed to his diagnosis that summer afternoon in the park, Dylan was revealing a deep, hurtful secret, an impediment he expected would be the end of their developing friendship. Before, Cameron had been a potential musician taking violin lessons (ironically, with Sebastian Crevecoeur’s granddaughter, how I’d met him) until he realized his growing relationship with Dylan gave his life purpose. They both loved music but both were interested in the minutia of science: maybe they could form a team?

The son of an American banker and an Iranian-born daughter of scientists, working for an insurance company (recently laid off), Cameron – named for his Uncle Kamran, an activist killed in the Islamist Revolution – had been taught to think for himself until he wondered if music might not be a possible career. His family was opposed to this – not financially rewarding, unrealistic, above all unstable – given their materialist view of success: they’d never forgive me if I’d turn him into a composer, yet!

And yet here was Cameron, standing in this room full of composers and critics, wondering if Dylan, with his in-depth knowledge of recordings and reviews, might not find success as a critic (rattling off quotes, he could give you the pros and cons of a dozen different recordings of Bartók's quartets) wondering if he himself might not be happier in the long run as a musician rather than a scientist, perhaps becoming a composer, his new-found interest, instead of being a violinist.

Like most people these days, he was impatient. He wanted to know now what he might be doing then, irritated to wait till after grad school before he’d realize his dream, rather than enjoy this indefinite time to search and explore unending possibilities, no matter how late his studies began.

He pointed her out as soon as she walked into the room, a mass of dark dreadlocks with golden highlights, a stately African-American woman dressed in a flowing red and black blouse. Everyone turned to see her and several of them waved, calling to her or giving her a joyous thumbs-up.

“Didn’t she just have a successful premiere in Los Angeles?” Cameron asked. “She’s even more amazing in real life!”

But then everything about Porgia Moore was amazing, not just her looks.

Born of the Inner City, she never knew who her father was, barely had a chance to know her mother before she died in a shoot-out on their front porch one night, then was brought up by her grandmother, later an aunt, before finding herself alone and homeless on the streets. She remembered the wintry day picking through the trash when she found an old clarinet somebody had thrown out and how she tried to play it but couldn’t figure it out. It cost too much to fix and wasn’t worth much, pawning it, so instead she decided to keep it, unwilling to throw it away like she’d been, and named it “Bessie-Mae.” A minister saw her lugging this clarinet around and took her in, probably the luckiest day of her life.

“I have no idea what might have happened to me,” she said, telling Rob and me her story over dinner that first night we’d met here, collectively our first time at Benninghurst. “He gave me a home, gave me the chance to attend the church school, even gave me his name. He also gave me a decent, working clarinet – his grandfather’s – and someone who would give me lessons on it, one of his jazz friends who played saxophone down at the club.”

The Reverend Lawnton Moore’s library had an extensive collection of jazz albums – Miles, Count Basie, Thelonius Monk, the Duke – but her favorites were Benny Goodman’s, especially the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. Home alone, she’d put on “Sing, Sing, Sing” and dance around the living room pretending to play her clarinet.

One of the LPs at the far end of the shelf was one of Benny Goodman playing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. “When I put that one on, I was both confused and transfixed. I couldn’t dance to it, it didn’t swing like that,” she said, “but I just sat there and listened. It was beautiful – I couldn’t get over it or figure out why, but I knew I’d discovered something wonderful. It was just so… groovy, or whatever slang we used back then.”

By then, she had turned sixteen, after making up for lost time, and was doing well in high school, playing on the girls’ basketball team, just barely getting into the band. Despite her history, it turned out she was very bright and found several areas very interesting: math, science, history. She worked very hard, knowing very well what the alternative would be: “I’d already been there – not goin’ back!” She made it into the local community college on a full scholarship.

Then a friend gave her another Benny Goodman recording, one she’d never heard before, playing “Contrasts” by Béla Bartók.

“Now, this was groovy cool shit,” she chuckled. “Talk about mesmerized, honey!”

It was then she realized she’s a college sophomore who wanted to take music classes. “Talk about a late-bloomer!”

Rob and I were in our late-20s. I’d just started teaching at Cutler University, Rob still working on his doctorate. Benninghurst accepted Porgia as a scholarship student, a kind of compositional intern. She had a chance to work in the office but also to spend time writing and do some networking. While others – including Lemm – chose to ignore her, the three of us hit it off, talking shop long into the night, taking her under our wing and looking over her scores.

Now, here’s Porgia with a big premiere by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Rob going off to Europe with his new opera at a major summer festival.

And then there’s me.

Well, mine wouldn’t be the first time a career never made it to the top, then crashed and burned.

“Give me a chance to put a clarinet or a trumpet or a violin in some kid’s hands and give him lessons,” she was saying, “who knows what that child might do? You teach them about music but also about hard work and discipline and working together, about self-respect, you know? If I had a program like that when I was a kid, I’d’ve been in a conservatory at 18, all before we’d even heard of Gustavo Dudamel and Venezuela’s El Sistema.”

I could hear her mellifluous baritone voice surging through the general hubbub, as if it were part conversation, part interview, part greeting and soap-box, every ounce of it genuine and intensely felt. Receiving congratulations, she accepted them graciously with lots of “Mmm hmmm”s and “Thank you”s and the periodic prepared statement. The reaction to her Clarinet Concerto in Los Angeles had been enthusiastic, a bit overwhelming, creating a buzz nationwide, a recording in the works and talk of a major future commission.

Porgia Moore had become, as most critics noted, “a force of nature,” someone to contend with, a “God-given talent,” confident and powerful but never arrogant or aggressive if not exactly humble. She was everybody’s friend and no one’s rival, but now that success was hers, soon she’d become fair game.

She saw me and shouted, “Cherí!” throwing her arms up and plowing her way through the crowd toward my table. It had been years since we’d seen each other, occasional e-mails aside. She enveloped me in a warm hug, this tall, statuesque woman in a modern-day dashiki, dreadlocks rattling all around.

“You like?” she asked, holding out the blouse she wore for emphasis. “It helps me look the part, in case anyone forgets I’m Black. It’s easier than dressing like a Lesbian.”

After introducing my friends to her and telling them how we’d met thirty-five years ago in this very room, I told her she’d missed the first skirmish in tonight’s Style Wars.

“Please,” she rolled her eyes, “not like you wouldn’t expect it in a roomful of egos like this one.”

“They could take this room and turn it into a TV reality show,” Sol said, nodding toward Suli's corner. “They could make Arthur Lemm the host, you know.” Felice began giggling.

“That pompous air-bag?” Porgia said. “If he didn’t have popularity on his side, he’d be just another boring non-entity.”

“Don’t knock popularity,” Sol replied, “you’re doing pretty well on that account.”

“Yes, honey, but I’m doing it by writing sincerely,” then added with a twinkle, “and writing my ass off!”

She grabbed herself a flute of champagne from a passing wide-eyed waiter, peering into the glass Cameron was drinking from.

“Ginger-ale? Why – aren’t you old enough yet to be drinkin’ champagne, honey?” She nudged me playfully in the shoulder.

Cameron blushed but I said, “He’s driving…”

“Aren’t you guys staying over?”

It hadn’t occurred to me and nothing had been mentioned in the planning. Besides, I’m only ninety minutes away; it’s not like I couldn’t let him drink and then I’d drive.

“No way I’m going to be driving back to New York tonight: Rob told me he wants to sit and talk with us over some drinks, later – our own private reunion.”

That sounded pretty enticing, actually, and I know Rob said he had a lot he wanted to talk about.

“So what do you want to be when you grow up,” she cooed at Cameron, “other than cute as hell?”

Again, Cameron blushed before he could manage to blurt out an answer.

He managed to explain how he was pursuing studies in science with an eye toward doing research in psychology.

Immediately, Porgia became totally serious, listening to him attentively, sipping her drink. She heard him out, expressing his doubts about loving music but not sure he had the talent for it.

Once he mentioned he’d started thinking how maybe he’d like to try composing, only because he’s curious about it, she had a wide grin on her face and started nodding knowingly.

"Oh, honey, I’ve been there, done that for so long, I’m the dictionary’s official illustration for late-bloomer," she said.

When he looked confused, she added confidentially, “you do still look at dictionaries that have illustrations in them, right?”

We were all trying not to laugh at yet more generational bewilderment.

“You hang out with this guy,” she nodded at me, “who knows what’ll happen: you’re in very good hands.”

Then it was my turn to blush.

“Don’t sell yourself short, Terry – you’re a better composer than you think you are, and a damned good teacher, better than many I’ve known.”

There was more commotion at the entrance to the ballroom and the crowd began turning and humming in curiosity when Porgia continued telling Cameron how she’d been interested in so many things.

“I could’ve gone into science myself or maybe history, for whatever reason, but I really loved music,” she cooed.

The buzz indicated another important celebrity was about to make an appearance. I was torn between wanting to watch and listening to what Porgia was telling Cameron who was all ears.

“And composing, you kiddin’ me? People asked me what right did I have to dream about becoming a composer! I was a twenty-year-old ghetto kid and I could barely read music.”

It was Rob – finally – entering the ballroom, making such a grand entrance, looking a bit exhausted, under the circumstances.

“If it hadn’t been for this guy and Rob Sullivan, who knows where I’d be today? I might be a successful college teacher and maybe I'd be happy – but then, maybe not.”

Rob pushed his way through all the well-wishers, looking over and waved, pointing toward the dias with a shrug.

“You stick with these guys,” Porgia told Cameron, “you’ll figure it out.”

Rob's smile implied there will be plenty of time to talk later, as if politics as usual trumped friendship.

= = = = = = =
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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