(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.
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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?”
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.”
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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.