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.
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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 DhabbodhĂș.”

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 DhabbodhĂș 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

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