Monday, December 01, 2014

The Lost Chord: Chapter 19

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, in the backstage chaos at intermission, Dr. Kerr and LauraLynn find an ally in the tenor Tito Nelmondo y Burla who offers them sanctuary in his remote dressing room. D'Arcy, meanwhile, offers himself as a decoy and is captured by the IMPs. Special Forces Director Leahy-Hu is not pleased to have lost the professor, however. In a remote alpine chalet, meanwhile, an old composer prepares himself for some disturbing news as Leahy-Hu prepares her interrogation in a remote dressing room in the Festspielhaus after first allowing Cameron to "escape."

= = = = = = =

Chapter 19

That whole month of May my junior year stretched into an eternity once Rob’s invitation had arrived from his parents – to spend four weeks vacationing with them on their island in Maine – that studying for my exams (especially math and chemistry) was pointless tedium considering my escape in a few weeks. The train-ride took forever to get there but when Rob and LauraLynn met me at the ferry in Rockland, I knew the next four weeks would go by in a flash. We had barely settled into our routine of practicing and talking, then taking long meditative walks around the island when Aunt Gracie arrived with her ten-year-old son Maurie and two toddlers. When she told us we’d have to let Maurie play with us, we wondered what she meant by ‘play’?

Rob and I had by then turned 17, secure in the knowledge we'd both soon be leaving home for college and feeling, consequently, that much more mature than our age might warrant. The number of years before we’d finally reach adulthood was much fewer than those separating us from distant childhood. LauraLynn was still struggling with the challenges of being a teen-ager only a few years younger than we were but we all three agreed Maurie was much too young for us.

It was difficult enough to find time when each of us could practice the piano an hour every day that wasn’t somehow an annoyance to Rob’s parents and their other guests who couldn’t understand, during our summer vacation, why we needed to practice when none of us were taking lessons. Shortly after she arrived, things had quickly gone from Aunt Gracie saying “Oh, I love listening to piano music” to “must you keep playing that same piece over and over again?” Naturally, they couldn’t appreciate the amount of time or work it took to build up a level of proficiency, that working hard helped maintain the fingers’ dexterity over the summer break. It was more a matter of our playing for them, entertaining them like a personal radio or record player.

Nor could the adults appreciate the fact a ten-year-old was too young for kids seven years older and that we neither wanted to “play” with a child nor act as his baby-sitter, just as they couldn’t accept Maurie needing to develop his own independence for being caught in the “generational” middle. Another aunt said it was a more a matter of “generational responsibility,” the older looking after the younger children, as she had done as the eldest child in a large family.

It didn’t take long before Rob suggested an unspoken game of hide-and-seek involving the three of us hiding somewhere before Maurie would realize we’d vanished someplace and come to find us. It helped Aunt Gracie was having one of her not infrequent migraines, hoping no doubt we'd all disappear quietly.

Maurie was in the kitchen badgering Rob’s mother for more ice cream when we hustled ourselves out the front door, heading down the path to Horizon Point’s rocky beach overlooking the ocean, when we discovered this was an excellent way to solve our problem, giving Maurie the status of perpetual seeker. After some vigorous and often vociferous searching, he might track us down unless we heard him first and moved, though usually he’d give up in frustration, sulking somewhere in a corner.

It would have been easier if Maurie had any interest in music rather than only wanting to play war games and consequently always needing to be at the center of our attention. In the mood for a serious conversation, we’d sneaked off to Horizon Point hoping to get away from him. Spoiled brat that he was, he apparently regarded his day a success only if he’d managed to ruin ours. We wondered how we might explain it if he should accidentally drown.

LauraLynn always loved it there, sitting on the rocks under the pines, kicking at the pebbles on the beach: were all of these so completely different, unique, like snowflakes, she wondered? Stars in the heavens or grains of sand in the earth’s deserts were still made from the same elements.

Infinite numbers and philosophical details may be the stuff of scientific fantasies but mostly it made my poor head spin, more amazed, considering his 104 symphonies, by how many notes Haydn used. If you took the finite number of pitches in a chromatic scale, composers only had twelve to work with.

Rob became increasingly agitated after realizing composers like Bach, Mozart and Haydn, all prolific composers in their own rights, had already written so much music using only these same twelve notes.

“How can any of us keep trying to write new music today? How many possible combinations can there be? Then imagine all these works’ individual components – movements, themes, transitions, even counterpoint…!” The sheer number of combinations was mind-boggling, he imagined, leaning back amazed, and clearly something he’d never considered before.

“But didn’t Beethoven and Brahms use them in different ways,” I argued. “Schoenberg found other ways to organize them. And aren’t there even fewer chord progressions, if you think about it…?”

LauraLynn looked up and quietly interrupted me, pointing to a small form lurking in the pine trees behind us when Maurie appeared, trumpeting his discovery of three “traitors to the cause.” As he swept us into his game, tracking down prisoners who’d escaped, he gleefully threatened to tell Rob’s mother.

A common thread we’d discovered in those biographies of the great composers, brief summaries in concert guides or liner notes, was the role that suffering played in the realization of their genius: Beethoven’s deafness, Schubert’s poverty, Mozart dying young, Tchaikovsky driven to attempt suicide or Schumann taken to an insane asylum. Who of us had the force of character to back up our self-esteem the way Beethoven intimidated his critics or had the arrogance to proclaim our worth the way Wagner did?

Considering in those days most great composers were supposed to be dead, we knew little about our recent contemporaries and along with all those newspaper critics, broadcast commentators and program-note writers, wondered who among those still composing (or yet to begin) might become the Beethoven or Brahms of our generation.

“It seems like some private club,” LauraLynn suggested, pointing out the lack of suffering among the composers we’re familiar with. First of all, there weren’t that many, by comparison, we could name. “Is there any 20th Century composer who can match what Beethoven went through and match him, masterpiece for masterpiece?”

Aside from Bartók, whom I wasn’t fond of, then, I had to admit my preferences had been comparatively lucky, but then for many of them, their chapters hadn’t been closed, yet.

Sitting in an abandoned picnic pavilion, part of the island’s overgrown park, I mentioned poverty was another common characteristic, except for Mendelssohn, born of wealth, who’d led a mostly happy life. Given this was his family’s private island, would Rob enjoy good fortune, finding Mendelssohn’s happiness in his life’s work?

It was then that I heard it, the crack of a twig, someone nearby and sneaking up on us. Do we scream first and scare him, or freeze, awaiting the inevitable?

“Hah!” Maurie shouted, springing up before us, “the heroic hunter, Baron Graystoke, catches the elusive prey in his sites: this lion, cheetah and wildebeest will look stunning on my castle walls!”

If the noble lion and the sleek cheetah were his estimable cousins, I guess that made me the wildebeest.

One cool and rainy day, perfect to be stuck inside and practicing, the adults playing cards in the parlor combined with Aunt Gracie’s now constant migraine meant no noise at the piano. Forced to retreat, we tiptoed up the back stairs to the attic after Maurie had slipped into the bathroom. Our conversation this time, over cookies and sodas we had smuggled up, turned to more personal dreams and aspirations, Rob making his Carnegie Hall debut and me conducting my latest opera.

LauraLynn worried that perhaps she didn’t really have the discipline it took to be even an average concert pianist, considering the hours it took just for her to keep in shape. She doubted she would want to spend the rest of her life practicing and living out of a suitcase.

Without any warning, the door burst open to the cracking of wood and the explosive sounds of imitation machine-gun fire, Maurie, eyes blazing, raking his arms back and forth across the attic. We didn’t know what to make of this sudden burst of violence, this maniacal manifestation of such unanticipated ferocity.

I fell forward, clutching at my stomach, and faked my painful death. LauraLynn and then Rob, finally, followed suit.

“Very funny, guys” Maurie sneered, “but the next time, it’ll be real.”

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

“It was hearing the sound of sub-machine-gun fire strafing across the stage that definitely alerted me to the fact this clearly was not your typical production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville!”

“Oh, very definitely,” Rita Pagliaccio replied, responding to her very enthusiastic guest, the handsome young board member, Christopher Babbila.

Rita Pagliaccio, freshly coiffed and her make-up repaired along with her dignity, stood firmly in her little space backstage while broadcast director Schmerzleid beamed, his dignity restored by mega-doses of scotch.

“In fact,” she pointed out, “there go some Festival security officers now, no doubt going backstage to get the autographs of those three futuristic policemen who appeared unexpectedly in the finale.”

“Yes,” Babbila continued, “that was an amazing moment, and quite a surprise. I mean, I saw several rehearsals, but…”

“No doubt,” she asked, smiling at him, “just as shocking and unexpected as it was at that first rehearsal, yes?”

“That’s just it,” Babbila smiled in disbelief. “I’d never seen them before.”

“You mean that hadn’t been rehearsed prior…?” She stared into the camera. “That’s amazing! Everything was so well timed!”

Speaking of amazing, Schmerzleid said they still hadn’t found Acting Director D’Arcy and now Board President Scarpia’s disappeared, too. And Maestro Maéstro was recuperating in his dressing room, supposedly on oxygen.

“It was as if I were witnessing something like, oh… spontaneous combustion?” Babbila looked around, hoping Scarpia would arrive. “It reminded me… well, how different times were in Count Almaviva’s Spain. Then compare that to the political repression during the Spanish Civil War, tying together both the past and present. And of course,” he added, “it’s time Germany faces up to the brutality of its own recent history with…”

Elsa Poppen, Schmerzleid’s assistant, now pushed someone she’d commandeered toward her hostess.

“Ah,” Rita gushed, cutting Babbila off, “here’s another of my distinguished guests, the fabulous Helmut Kartoffelnkopf of Das Opernwelt.” They shared a modest kiss on each cheek. “Welcome backstage, Herr Kartoffelnkopf. We were just talking about what a wonderful… I don’t know, symbol? – this finale was, given our post-9/11 world?”

“Ach, so wonderful to be here and, certainly, to see you again, my little pumpkin – oh, perhaps,” Kartoffelnkopf said, chuckling, “I should not use such endearments after the destruction we’ve just witnessed? But yes, that would be one way of interpreting the director’s intentions though I saw something even more timely. For me, the squashing of all those pumpkins – ach, what a mess! – symbolizes the crushing of the popular spirit, the people’s will rising up against dictatorships in the recent Arab Spring.”

Behind them, it was impossible not to notice every available stagehand with mops and towels busily scouring the stage, as poor Gottlieb, the frazzled stage manager, frantically supervised the emergency clean-up.

Schmerzleid pointed out Herr Gottlieb, responsible for supervising the Met’s production here, and signaled Elsa to bring him over.

Herr Kartoffelnkopf continued as if spontaneously writing his review for Die Opernwelt: “Yet the message here may be very serious. How you say, there can be no omelet without breaking some eggs?”

Glancing over his shoulder toward the stage, he saw Gottlieb turn white, nearly fainting as Ms. Poppen approached him.

“It was, perhaps, a bit too messy,” Kartoffelnkopf continued, “but yes, it is still a comedy, is it not? And so he created one that’s truly worthy of the Marx Brothers!”

Television viewers across the continent suddenly saw a deathly pale old man stumble on as if pushed unceremoniously from behind then introduced as the Schweinwald Festival’s supervising director for tonight’s broadcast production.

“The introduction of six unexpected characters from nowhere,” Rita Pagliaccio enthused rapturously, “was a brilliant, Pirandellian stroke, Herr Gottlieb.”

Herr Gottlieb was busy patting down what was left of his hair, nervously preparing himself for his public execution.

“What inspired those three gruesome militiamen and the hapless visitors they pursued?”

There was a brief moment, unnoticeable except to the most attentive viewers, that moment of complete and unexpected transformation, the kind one expects to experience only after being released from mortality, when Gottlieb went from feeling he was being shoved under a guillotine to realizing he’s being hailed a genius.

He looked around nervously, afraid he might be struck down for lying. “Well, actually,” he said, taking a deep breath. “It had been my plan all along to completely surprise the singers.” He continued, “so they’re forced to react spontaneously to these events happening around them, just as in real life.”

Meanwhile, Rita Pagliaccio stepped back to ask Elsa Poppen if any of the singers were ready for their close-ups.

“Oh no, they’ve all gone off to their dressing rooms, by now.”

“Well,” Rita continued, nodding at the camera, “it certainly was very realistic, especially when that mysterious anvil started to fall. Then one soldier started shooting at it – how did you manage that?”

“I only gave them a vague scenario, then worked with them separately – nobody knew what the others might do.”

“Wow!,” Kartoffelnkopf said. “From the back row of this magnificent opera house, when those poor victims appeared from nowhere, you could see the fear in their eyes, especially the old man’s.”

“But if you want your singers to improvise to surprises like this, how will you do this next time?”

Gottlieb declared this could never be duplicated, created only for tonight’s gala.

“Then, dare we hope for any similar surprises in the second act?”

Suddenly, Gottlieb fainted and was carried off-stage.

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

“Here we are,” he whispered, pointing with his saber. “Dressing Room #458,” opening the door to let us in.

“For the leading tenor, he sure got stuck out in the boonies…”

“Whatever that means,” Zittipiano said, “Señor Nelmondo may like his adoring crowds but he prefers solitude during his intermissions.”

I walked into this incredibly tiny space, hardly a room I would’ve expected for the star of the show, hoping that Ms. DiLetto’s room was at least a little less Spartan.

After a quick thumbs-up, our guide turned, hurrying back down the hallway to disappear around one of the many corners, leaving me to wonder how we would ever find our way out.

With a dressing table, chair and coat-rack, the room was big enough. We didn’t really need a dance floor.

As I closed the door behind us, LauraLynn collapsed onto the chair, her shoulders heaving with not quite silent sobs. It wasn’t just a matter of grieving: she was now directly involved. Everything from the past hour was catching up with the events of the past week and hitting her hard. From the moment she’d walked into that room and saw Rob’s body, a memory that rarely left her thoughts, she hadn’t yet allowed herself any emotional breakdown beyond a general numbness.

Just as I put my arms around her to console her, there was a quiet knock at the door.

“Nobody’s here,” I said. “Who is it?”

“Let me in. It's me.”

“We’re to let no one in.” I paused. “Are you no one?”

I missed the string of ensuing profanity.

He knocked again. “Psst, it's me – Lindoro.”

“Ah. Are you really Lindoro or are you someone disguised as Lindoro?”

“Look, Baroldo, just open the damn door! It’s Tito Nelmondo – the tenor?”

Hoping he might have a little time to kick back and relax for a few minutes during the intermission, he also had to change into his next costume, Basilio’s presumed assistant. Since it wasn’t already on the coat rack or in the bathroom, he’d have to wait till it arrived.

“If you need to escape,” our host said, pointing into the bathroom, “you’ll find another door leading to the dressing room behind this one. At least for tonight’s performance, it’s empty. It opens out around this next corner; then, make a right turn – you’ll be headed toward the stage door.”

Considering we really had not a clue what we were doing here beyond hiding till the coast was clear, I said, “Thanks, that’s good to know. The question is, ‘what next?’”

While he poured a little red wine into some small plastic cups, I tried to explain what was going on, leaving out the bit why we were being pursued by IMP agents, though when you really thought about it, it sounded no less fantastic than many operas he’d frequently sung in.

As impressed by our story as he was, and by LauraLynn’s beauty, the tenor became especially deferential toward my companion. While I felt like the fifth wheel, she tried not to blush. But let her have this moment’s respite: it’s been a rough week and these past hours were no cakewalk.

Nelmondo sighed, peering deep into her eyes until LauraLynn felt quite overawed, then touched her hand delicately before whispering, “Perhaps you would care to join me for a little dinner afterward?”

There was a knock at the door.

“Who's there,” I asked, hesitating.

“It's Guido – from Costume? I’m here to adjust your 2nd Act costume.”

“Well,” I asked, “what's the secret password?”

“You know,” Nelmondo said, continuing his attentions to LauraLynn, “I could really go for a big plate of swordfish!”

“Oh, okay, then,” I said and pushed the door open for Guido.

A short man with a suit bag strutted in, smiling and waving, needles and threads dangling from his lips.

LauraLynn, drying her eyes, cautiously took the artifact out of the tote-bag, holding it up to the dressing table’s lights, its heaviness apparently taking her by surprise, otherwise looking like delicate porcelain.

Only half-listening to the chatty singer, she continued checking the statue out, more out of wonder than simple curiosity.

“What can it possibly be that someone’s willing to kill for it – or that old journal nobody took seriously before?” LauraLynn sat it down on the dressing table between her and Nelmondo.

“I haven’t really had time to figure out what it is,” I told her, “much less what it means.”

“But clearly, it must have some significance or Rob wouldn’t’ve gone to the trouble of hiding it,” she said.

“Maybe we shouldn’t leave it out – if the wrong person sees it...”

There was another knock at the door.

“Make-up for Señor Tito Nelmondo.”

I opened the door to let in a couple wearing blood-stained smocks, carrying trays of containers, brushes and combs.

“I am Kensington Gore, make-up artist to opera's greatest stars. Ah, señor!”

Nelmondo waved while Guido fixed a hem.

“There's a nice little restaurant not far from here,” Nelmondo continued crooning, as if he and LauraLynn were alone.

Again, she held up the artifact and complained how dusty it was.

“Electrician,” somebody barked. “My name’s Siegfried, here to fix the light switch.”

Opening the door, I let him in.

“Great,” I said, pointing to Nelmondo, “let’s start by turning him off…”

Dusting off the back of the artifact, LauraLynn noticed a strange inscription running the length of the spine – music?

Another discreet knock at the door made me question this hallway’s isolation, our fourth visitor since Señor Nelmondo’s arrival, a smiling young woman dressed in pink wielding a matching autograph book.

“I was wondering if I could get the autograph of Juan-Diego Flórez,” she asked, pushing the book at me.

“That’s rather unlikely,” I told her, “since he’s not singing here tonight, but you’re welcome to come in and…”

Before I finished, she pushed past me as someone else started knocking.

“Land shark!”

A heavy-set man over six-foot tall with a burly laugh pushed his way in without a second thought.

“I’m Roy, the electrician’s assistant.” I found myself staring into his chest.

The young lady was barely able to navigate around, getting some autographs first from LauraLynn and then Kensington Gore.

“Ha-LOO-ooo?” There was a rapid flutter of knocking. “Anybody home? Señor Nelmondo?

The electrician's assistant opened it first. “Who’re you?”

“We’ve been sent over from Set Design? Somebody here ordered a make-over?”

“Well, two more,” I said, “come on in, the more the merrier. Can you make the place look bigger?”

“Look, Terry,” LauraLynn called to me, holding the artifact sideways and pointing, “there’s something weird about this music, here.”

“Put that away,” I told her, “we’re about to reach critical mass!”

More knocks heralded the arrival of three waiters carrying trays of food.

“We're from the Festspielhaus Commissary, Señor Nelmondo: they’ve sent over some food after they heard you had some guests.”

“Excellent,” the tenor sang out from his dressing table, underneath several people. “I'm famished. Who’s up for a snack?”

Hoping to avoid detection by the infamous “Killer” Abbot at all cost, I tried closing the door behind them only to find myself body-surfing through the room across the raised trays.

We all started yelling “Mind that door!” just as it was yanked open by a clearly irate Nandi Abbott who stood, glowering, ready to give the evening’s Almaviva his three-minute warning.

Towering behind her stood one of the black-clad agents from the IMP, her machine-gun drawn and at the ready.

If I'd felt the air pressure continued building with each new arrival once the space had exceeded its legal capacity, I feared the room would be ready to explode any minute now. When the usher yanked the door open, it was like a hole puncturing the pressurized cabin of an airplane. Out onto the hallway floor cascaded a sinuous mass of intertwined bodies, plates of food spilling in all directions: waiters, interior decorators, electricians, the autograph-seeker, make-up people and Guido from Costumes.

Now dressed as the music master’s assistant, Tito Nelmondo clambered out over the pile of bodies, bowing and nodding as Nandi Abbot prepared to tear into him for his intermission infractions. But checking the body count, she told the agent she didn’t recognize those two unwelcome visitors she’d stopped earlier.

“Ah, you must be one of the new supers from the finale. That was quite a smashing debut,” Nelmondo gushed, taking the agent's hand and giving it a gallant if deferential kiss. “You must join me for a light dinner after the performance tonight,” but she pulled brusquely away from him.

Bowing, the tenor sauntered off down the hall singing “peace and joy,” ready to renew his conflict with Bartolo.

The agent peered into the dressing room but found it otherwise unoccupied.

= = = = = = =
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

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