Jack sat in the middle of the cavernous hall. All around him men in suits were seated beside women in gowns and furs. Occasionally there were young people, students who must have had passes or generous parents or enough desire to scrape up the cash to hear Alexander Petrov, the reclusive virtuoso pianist, at this October first concert. Jack had arrived in L.A. a few weeks ago, a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music in search of a studio job as well as time to compose. He remembered his parents’ stories about the pianist, who was a distant relative of Jack’s father. When he read about the concert, he wanted to hear the great musician, and he decided to go. Petrov was one of that select group of performers who had the power to stir even a resistant listener. On records and, it was said, especially live, the heavy old pianist seemed almost a godlike force—a Neptune bringing shape and order to the ocean of energy pouring through the music he played, as if all that wild risk and passionate surge were containable in a bowl of gold or a brimming goblet of glass. Petrov would be playing Beethoven’s Hammerklavier after intermission; the pianist had made a classic recording of the sonata in the fifties. Now, twenty years later, he played in concert only once a year—in October at UCLA.
Janice occupied the seat next to Jack. Her long purplish hair circled her face so that she kept smoothing it from her cheek, and the strap of her black velvet dress kept falling from her brown shoulder. He had met her three weeks ago, on the day he looked for a Venice apartment, walking up and down the grid of pedestrian paths which sufficed for streets in the beach-front neighborhood between Rose and Venice. Several times, he had trekked past the Ellison Hotel when Janice leaned out the window of her first floor apartment and pointed across the Paloma walkway to the dilapidated stucco bungalow, a shack of a house on the corner.
“They’re about to move out,” she had said; her hair, dyed purple over brown, had hung below her shoulders, her black bikini loosely circling her. She was completely tanned, and her face had the weathered cast of a woman who had given months and years to the sun. She looked to be forty, about a decade older than Jack. She had asked his name, and she gave him the name of the landlord. When he moved in, Janice had been fascinated by the music pouring from his windows. She couldn’t understand his obsession but she had wanted to attend when she heard he was going to this Sunday concert.
Now, as the hall lights dimmed, three people appeared at a doorway near the stage. A short, graying woman with a black fur folded over her arm must be Petrov’s wife, Jack thought, and the blonde woman and the man were his children. The younger woman headed them toward three vacant aisle seats close to the stage. The man had unruly black hair; he would be Joseph, a pianist like his father, only just beginning his career. Suddenly there was a roar of applause, and Alexander Petrov emerged onto the stage. His neutral walk had the art the occasion demanded, with all the hungry souls clapping at him, many of them, it seemed, celebrating the fabric of their gowns and suits.
Petrov was big and stout, with a horseshoe of trim white hair rimming his shiny head. His face—familiar from record jackets—gazed blankly out at the only audience he allowed now in this yearly concert at UCLA. Suddenly he stepped forward to the verge of the stage and raised his hands to silence the crowd: “This concert,” he said in an accented voice, “I want to dedicate it to the memory of my friend and great pianist who passed away this last month. Robert Casadesus.”
He sat down and immediately struck his large and graceful hands on the piano keyboard: Bartok’s Allegro Barbaro, designed to draw in without appeasing the audience. His clanging, plangent tone was astonishing, each note incredibly clear and full. The improvisatory liberties he took seemed always on the verge of exploding the work, yet every manic detail was balanced, in place. Then Stravinsky’s Three Scenes from Petroushka: the heavy man became a circus master playing presto and with complete detachment the technically impossible work, as if it were a demonic joke, a throw of the dice. Finally, Schoenberg’s Three Pieces opus 11. He played so quietly and with such clarity that Jack felt the auditorium recede, recede, and all the city leveled to its original silence; then Petrov would visit this silent world with moments of such dissonant shouts of tone immediately subdued that Jack smiled tensely to keep from crying out. Yet all the while he waited, his soul tightening. He kept recalling the sound of Petrov’s historic recording and the score of the sonata which the pianist was to play after intermission.
The paneled foyer of Royce Hall was packed with people during the break. They stood by columns, under arches, crowding out into the evening air. Janice stood with him on the plaza under the clouded sky.
There was an odd static in the air, and the rim of nearby Bel Air hills seemed edged by a fluorescent charge. He remembered first seeing the Santa Monica mountains when he flew in from Cleveland three weeks ago; the plane descended over this squat ridge of mountains, floating and dipping over the etched and inhabited canyons and then skimming toward the great gray mass of Pacific water. On stereo earphones, he had listened to Beethoven’s Eroica. “Welcome to Los...,” the stewardess had cut in, and the music’s homage to freedom vanished into silence. Inside LAX, Jack had bought the Los Angeles Times for September 6, 1972: Black September Attacks Israelis at Munich Olympics. Eleven Dead. It was not a summer of love. Another toll, an uncounted one, had begun with the bombing of North Vietnam, and just three months ago, twenty-five died in a bombing at Lod Airport in Tel Aviv. He had visited Israel as a boy, after his bar-mitzvah: the thin pine trees, the peeling eucalyptuses, the dark hallucinatory cypresses, the oleanders with waxen leaves and pink flowers, the billowing bougainvillea with veils of massed deep purple flowers and little trails of them amid the upreaching limbs of cactuses on apartment balconies in Tel Aviv. The arid beauty and expansiveness reminded him of L.A., yet this memory—like his sense of being Jewish—was dream-like, fragmentary, and remote.
“Hey,” Janice said on the plaza now, “are you okay?”
“Sure. How’d you like the music?”
“Strange. Especially the last piece. Strange music,” she said.
“You wanted to come.”
“Why do you smile? You’re laughing at me.”
“What about the music I hear you playing?” He was wearing his jeans and blue sweater with a brown tweed coat, and he began to shuffle out a rhythm on the gravel, to dance. She tightened her psychedelic shawl around her black dress. Amid the blare of the crowd he began chanting a travesty of an Iggy Pop travesty—“It’s nineteen seventy-two, okay”—and she laughed. She reached toward him and held him against her laughing body, her arms tight around his back to stop him. The Hall lights were blinking and the crowd returning now. At the open doors stood the young man with unruly dark hair, finishing a cigarette. He had Petrov’s face and nose, yet there was an odd blankness to his eyes, not like his father’s, not German Jewish or Russian. He looked at Jack, as if he recognized someone, and then calmly turned away.
The lights dimmed again, and the seventy year old pianist—his head shining—sat before the keys. Rapidly and at once, he relished Beethoven’s opening leaps and the athletic intensity of the Hammerklavier. In the fugato development, chords slammed one after another over the keyboard, and dissonance held the air. Then the sonata’s opening leaps returned at the unleashed pace Beethoven prescribed, and the Allegro raced to its end. Jack watched the sweating old man pause and begin to draw the stumbling Scherzo out, its assai vivace rhythm resistant and off beat.
Then the pianist hunched in the glare and silence before the Adagio. He raised his thick hands, and the slow music began to escape from the piano and spread out—appassionato e con molto sentimento—into the evening stillness where the audience sat poised. In the middle of the Adagio, Jack leaned back, his eyes shut, to hear Beethoven’s variation, four notes for each pulse, twelve in each bar hovering, luminous and quiet. Finally the rhythm fragmented again and admitted to stretches of silence; the pathology of the sonata was carefully exposed, the long-breathed serenity of its yet living lungs, the still slowly pulsing heart. Then, the Adagio sostenuto ended.
Tentative tones arose: weak, curtailed breaths, an irregular pulse, and then the old man’s hands acquired new sporadic life, improvisatory and unpredictable. Here notes disregarded the priorities of symmetry, free now to draw new breath. Here the sonata rose up, ghostly and vital by turns, and the spontaneous exhalations grew. Here, at the point of death, fierce spirits were stirred and unleashed, and suddenly the final fugue flew from its Largo introduction.
Now Petrov’s temperament found free expression, a willingness to take the greatest risks. At moments, he played the Allegro risoluto with a ruthlessness, which seemed to stamp and hurdle with steeled cruelty. Dissonances and sforzandi, trills and leaps, were all absorbed into the shock and momentum of the unfolding fugue. Suddenly there was the boom and crackle of a disintegratingly violent climax, and Petrov grabbed the body of the piano. When his hands let go there was absolute silence, and in this silence he began the canon, barely audible, with a gentleness which was intolerable in its control of touch, and Jack had to keep himself from laughing aloud or crying out. Finally, the rigorous counterpoint returned, and wave after wave of music renewed itself in the face of the sonata’s death.
At the final chord, there was a standing ovation. After the fourth, Petrov lifted his hands toward the audience like a surgeon wriggling his fingers at a patient, shaking them at the crowd and the Steinway behind him. He grinned and walked off, not to return.
Dazed, Jack made his way to the aisle with Janice. He felt compelled to go to Petrov’s reception, and he walked with her against the flow of the exiting crowd. With a group of other fans or friends, they walked up onto the stage, past Petrov’s black grand, and found their way to the room where the pianist held court, a lit cigar in hand. Sweat still poured from his face as he shook the hands of people who filed past him, received the embraces of furred ladies; warm and voluble, he passed some of these people on to his wife and daughter, who stood near him. Jack had been right. Mrs. Petrov was this small, gray woman who met those who came to her politely, with a detached, perceptive gaze.
The daughter stood next to her. She wore a suede suit, and her blonde hair was pulled tight around her head, though there were some untamed wisps at her slender neck. Her glance had a clarity and intensity suggesting a life apart from the social ritual in which she was engaged. Her eyes were dark brown, almost black, quite unlike those of the mother, pale and gray, or of the brother, who was nowhere to be seen. Petrov’s daughter looked to be Jack’s age.
He stood before Petrov and shook his hand. “Thank you for a wonderful concert,” Jack said softly. “I’m Julius Weinstein’s son.”
“What?” the pianist boomed. “I remember Julius! The cellist. With the Cleveland Orchestra now. My second cousin. I’m delighted to see you! Meet my wife Helen. And your name?” He told them. Petrov asked to whom he should sign his autograph when Janice thrust her program toward the pianist, who carefully assessed her. “I like your shawl,” he said. Mrs. Petrov told Jack he must call and visit. Their daughter Sarah stood before him.
“Good to meet you,” she said. Jack was astonished by the beautiful resonance of her high voice as she spoke her greeting. She shook hands firmly with her thin hand.
* * *
“You smile when you’re listening at the concert, you know?” Janice said as they drove in his sixty-two VW through the night fog down Santa Monica to Main.
“I smile? Probably from pleasure,” he said.
He felt outside the present. He glanced at her face, thin and weathered brown, the fine long nose, the high bones of her cheeks, the purplish hair. She began to tell him about herself—her mad Italian family, her past relationship to a folk singer in the sixties, and in the fifties the years she spent in San Francisco, the beat scene in North Beach, the protests against HUAC. Now she worked at a café on Rose, baking bread and pastries in the back kitchen. She survived, with afternoons off for the beach.
When she asked him in, Jack took automatic steps up the Ellison’s front stairs and into her first-floor apartment. She handed him a glass of bourbon with ice and sat next to him on the couch. “Do you want something else—there’s some hash around somewhere.” He lifted his glass and drank—it was enough. The Hammerklavier still pulsed through him as they talked; in a while he would walk across the cement path of Paloma and work to compose some as yet unheard and unimagined music. She lowered the straps of her velvet dress; she smiled and said, “Welcome to Los Angeles.” Later their bodies joined on the couch and moved together in an intricate, leaping rhythm.
* * *
Beyond the beach a block away, the Pacific was clearly visible from Jack’s bungalow on the corner of the Paloma path. The windows of the living room were open to the ocean shimmering in the October sun, and hot Santa Ana air pulsed through the room. He wore only cut off jeans, sitting at his table by the open windows and looking through the swaying lace curtains. His back was sunburned, and his reddened legs were tender against the armless wooden chair. In the room there were second-hand chairs, a stuffed couch, a rented upright piano, and shelves with books, records, and a stereo. The volume was turned up, and Beethoven’s music absorbed Jack. On the table were his journals—wire-bound, cardboard-backed volumes of music paper—in which he composed and occasionally wrote notes to himself.
The final fugue ended, and Beethoven’s leaping cadence left him in silence. The phonograph stopped. He rose from his chair and walked barefoot to the kitchen to pour a cup of coffee from the pot he heated on the stove. He cut a slice of raisin-pumpernickel and began chewing the heavy peasant bread, savoring the seeded wheat, smelling its sweetness.
In the living room, he turned over the record, and pushed the lever to turn on the machine. The player’s needle edged into the circumference of the vinyl, and again the Hammerklavier sonata leapt from the speakers—it was Petrov’s great recording of the sonata. In the three days since hearing the pianist play, Jack had been drawn back to his writing desk and to this recording, to the glimpsed idea of a new composition.
He reached to the pile of journals for an old one, which he placed over the current 1972 notebook before him on the table. The earlier volume contained musical sketches and diary entries from 1970, the year he received his Masters at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Jack turned to the last pages where he had begun work on a sonata for piano. He was ready now to return to these beginnings. He could imagine the entire promised structure, and he transposed from the old notebook to his latest one the initial ideas for the sonata’s first movement.
As he closed the 1970 journal, he noticed the final diary entry: “Dec 31: I’ve written down my first musical ideas since getting my MA in May. Spurred by listening to the immense and wonderful Hammerklavier sonata (Petrov’s great recording, the wizard). Not an homage to Beethoven: it will be a confrontation. Not with shadows, but presences, for I continually feel his presence.” And then a postscript: “Molly and I have broken up. Shit, the long and winding road is permanently closing. She always claimed I didn’t respect her going to law school. But I did respect her and the intensity of our love, or was it the intensity of our lovely love-making? I don’t know now, sitting here at midnight, staring out the window at snow falling, eddying in the light as if under water, like an ocean current.”
His professor’s office had overlooked a snow-clogged street, which bordered the squat, green, glassed-in building of the Music Institute in Cleveland. It was 1966 when Marcel Dick had first invited Jack into the stuffy office strewn with papers. Dick had a thick face, and a narrow upper lip knifed across it; glasses masked the refinement and intensity of his eyes. He had been the first violist at Vienna, Detroit, Cleveland, had studied with Schoenberg and helped found the Kolisch Quartet at Schoenberg’s suggestion, and finally had headed theory and composition at the Institute. He addressed Jack, a new Masters student and son of his cellist friend from the Cleveland Orchestra, as Mr. Weinstein: “This much I can do for you,” Marcel Dick said, “because you already have something yourself, Mr. Weinstein. You already know that the theme comes first. But then what do you do with it! In Vienna, Schoenberg looked at the first piece I showed him. ‘Dick,’ he said, ‘you must pare this down. Prune and cultivate: you’ll see what wonders that will do.’ Why did he say that? Because a piece of music must be a unit, an organic whole. This was Arnold’s view, and it is mine. Today the language we speak is dissonance. But that doesn’t mean imagination and craftsmanship are no longer in cahoots!” So Jack had begun his four years at the Institute, from 1966 until two years ago. With Dick, Victor Babin, and Donald Erb. Earlier this year, when he decided to move to L.A., Erb had agreed to call an old friend, a studio composer, for Jack.
On the stereo now, Jack heard Beethoven’s resounding leaps—Petrov’s protean fists in flight above the piano keyboard—as they built toward the climax of the Allegro’s development. He inked a corresponding leap over the bass clef at the opening of his new work. The Hammerklavier would speak out, an oblique resurrection, from Jack’s sonata.
Three bald geniuses entered in a gust of laughter. Ashen and aflame in the September sun, Schoenberg, Bartok, and Stravinsky cast moving shadows over the living room. They sat on the overstuffed chairs and couch, and asked Jack for brandy to pour in three cups of coffee. They spoke all at once. He heard the Viennese Jew, solid and tanned, say, “I discovered the space between. The chasms in cliché.” The pale, fragile Hungarian said: “Into all abysses, I bear the blessing of my saying yes.” And the thin Russian shouted: “We belong nowhere now, so recently dead, possessing sixteen languages between us and we’ve not come this far to hear you grasp at nothing.”
The opening notes of Jack’s sonata lay before him in the early autumn sun, and he held the table’s edge as Beethoven’s final leaping cadence left the room in silence.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
My newly completed novel is The Fall of the Berlin Wall, about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. My 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]