And when a renowned faculty member dies of apparent natural causes, only the curious behaviour of a violin student at Jacobus’s master class is an indication to him that something may be terribly amiss.
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A Daniel Jacobus Mystery
By Gerald Elias
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2017 Gerald Elias
All rights reserved.
Wednesday, March 18
News of the symposium's last-minute replacement created quite a buzz at the Kinderhoek Conservatory, even more so, in a certain way, than if Isaac Stern had not cancelled. As great as he was, Stern was a known quantity and had given a masterclass at the conservatory the year before. Jacobus, on the other hand, had an unpolished aura steeped in conflict and mystery. His arrival on campus aroused as much curiosity among the faculty as among the students. Yumi checked him in to his accommodations at the Campus Inn and then, after a brief rest and a dry hamburger, walked him to the Hiram Feldstein Auditorium of the Dolly Cooney Performance Building, the venue for the symposium.
The auditorium was filled to the brim with students, faculty, staff, and potential donors. Baroque music – or more accurately, the performance of Baroque music – had become a hot-button topic in the cloistered world of classical music in recent years, and Charles Hedge, emceeing the discussion, sought to capitalize on the passionate debate as a means to fatten the school's endowment. Backstage, Jacobus was cursorily introduced to the other three panelists, with whom he exchanged vague and meaningless pleasantries. Escorted by a young co-ed, they slalomed through pots of seasonal tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils decorating the stage. Jacobus stumbled upon one of them, was caught from falling by the young lady, and heard someone in the wings mutter, 'Already?'
Jacobus and the other three panelists sat at a linen-draped table in the center of the stage, where they waited for the event to begin. Jacobus shifted his behind in an uncomfortable classroom chair. How had she done it? he asked himself for the umpteenth time. How had Yumi sweet-talked him into being a panelist for this damned symposium?
Additional spring flowers had been positioned in the middle of the table, dividing him and Bronislaw Tawroszewicz – the other applied, or performing, musician – who were seated on the right side of the table, from the pair of academic musicians, Sybil Baker-Hulme and Harold Handy, on the left. The seating arrangement reflected the subtle though profound division between performers and scholars, which had persisted ever since someone first banged a log with a stick and someone else tried to explain why, and which continued to be a dubious hallmark of advanced music conservatories.
Yumi had given Jacobus the rundown on the other panelists. That he had never heard of them was more his fault than theirs, as blindness reduced Jacobus's interest in keeping current with music pedagogy. Even so, he'd never had much patience for reading about music. He learned from listening and playing and not from people writing about it.
Yumi had also prepped Jacobus with the ground rules for the discussion. Starting with Baker-Hulme, each panelist would present their opening perspectives on the topic at hand. That would be followed by written questions from the audience passed up to Dean Hedge. Each speaker was provided a microphone and a glass of water, and the three who were not blind had written notes spread out before them.
Jacobus collected his thoughts while Hedge, at the podium, annoyingly preoccupied himself with testing and retesting his microphone with snippets of prepared comments while waiting for the final attendees to cram into the auditorium. At the appropriate moment, Hedge cleared his throat into his microphone. He welcomed the packed assemblage to the 'Going for Baroque' curtain-raiser and expressed the heartfelt view that 'if all performances were so well attended, classical music would be declared alive and well!' The response, by design, was an affirmative roar. He then introduced each guest, reading down their substantial résumés. Finishing, Hedge invited everyone upon the conclusion of the symposium 'at nine o'clock or dawn, whichever comes first,' to a light reception in the lobby where they could 'interface' with the guest speakers.
'And now, ladies and gentlemen,' Hedge concluded, 'let's give a proud Kinderhoek welcome to our esteemed panelists.'
Not able to take a visual cue from the other panelists, and not having been in this position before, Jacobus was clueless how to respond. Should he wave? Should he bow? Should he smile? He could draw upon his memory to recall which facial muscles were necessary to simulate a smile. But any response he could think of seemed presumptuous, so he simply sat there. If they assumed he was being antisocial, so be it, there was nothing he could do about it.
When the applause died down, Professor Baker-Hulme spoke into her microphone, expressing her delight at being so warmly received. She then commenced her presentation with the same moral certitude that had created the British Empire, or so it seemed to Jacobus.
'After the death of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1750,' she began, 'the music of the Baroque became, to paraphrase Handel's Messiah, "rejected and despised." It was repudiated by a new generation of more frivolous popular taste, which inaccurately deemed the Baroque's inherently contrapuntal nature as too academic and too intellectual. With few exceptions, the aesthetic of the Classical and Romantic eras, and well into the twentieth century, turned a deaf ear to the vast musical treasury that had lasted for one hundred and fifty years from the time of Claudio Monteverdi in the early 1600s.'
Perfect Queen-of-England enunciation, Jacobus thought. From there he began to extrapolate: Middle-aged. Prosperous. Confident. Wears nice clothes even at a picnic. Hair in place even when it's a mess. 'I'm more famous than you' kind of voice. For Jacobus, the mental exercise had become so ingrained over the decades since the onset of his blindness he was no longer aware it was even an exercise.
'The early twentieth century brought us a false renaissance of Baroque music,' Baker-Hulme continued, 'starting with the faux Baroque compositions of Stravinsky and Respighi, and followed by the misguided attempts to "improve" Baroque music by basting it with thick-as-molasses monstrosities like Leopold Stokowski's arrangement of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor.'
Baker-Hulme recited the word 'monstrosities' with such flair that the audience had no choice but to agree with the absurdity of the idea and laughed en chorus. 'I refer to these abominations as nefarious Baroque,' she said. She went on to recount how true scholarship – with her at the helm – had brought Baroque music back from the brink of the abyss and concluded her statement with upbeat affirmation, sounding not unlike Margaret Thatcher addressing Parliament.
'As the result of decades of intense scholarship, with our understanding of historically informed performance, we can now recreate the musical glory of the Baroque era exactly as audiences of the period heard it! The way it was meant to sound!'
Jacobus could hear seats slapping against seat backs, as the audience rose to its feet in applause. After they resettled, he heard Dean Hedge step to the microphone, take a deep breath, and speak the single word: 'Next,' drawing a unanimous guffaw.
'I have great admiration for my esteemed colleague's scholarship,' Professor Harold Handy began. Handy's famous monotone, Yumi had told Jacobus, had earned him the mixed reputation of possessing a lively intellect and wry wit but of being a tedious lecturer. 'And I have no question as to the veracity of her words. I would simply like to present a broader perspective, if I may.'
So far she was right about the tedious lecturer, Jacobus thought. Handy would rush through a sentence and then pause at great length before commencing the next, as if each was a newly conceived and separate thought.
Handy cleared his throat, which, Jacobus soon noted, was his habit prior to making what he thought was an essential point. Maybe no one else noticed it because they were looking at Handy as well as listening to him. Jacobus simply found it annoying.
'That term, "historically informed performance," that Sybil used. It's a fairly new one. I don't know who coined it – I'm not sure anyone does – nor how it is determined whose performance is historically informed and whose is not. Unlike cancer warning labels on cigarette packs, there are no universally accepted standards for informedness. Unlike most clubs, which require certain qualifications for membership, "historically informed" musicians are solely self-appointed.'
I'm starting to like this guy, Jacobus thought. Let him clear his throat all he wants.
'"Historically informed" means, I suppose, that the performers have read some of the books and, like the children's game of telephone, have passed around some of the tales about how music was performed at the time it was written. In some cases – for instance in regard to vibrato on string instruments – historically informed performers contradict the historical record. Why, you may ask. Who knows? Maybe it's because they like being different. Sometimes these H.I. folks play on instruments of similar construction to those used when the music was first performed; even, for a twisted logic difficult to fathom, when those instruments, like the French horn, are painfully inferior to modern instruments.'
Handy cleared his throat.
'The clear, and I believe intended, inference of the "historically informed" self-label is that anyone not fortunate to be so dubbed must thereby be historically uninformed. Club membership denied.
'In the end, the only absolute essential is what the performance means to the listener. The listener. Though I cannot be certain, I suspect Bach or Mozart would agree with that, and if that's what you take away from your listening experiences, then that's as informed as anyone needs to be. Thank you.'
The symposium was turning out to be more entertaining than Jacobus had expected. Harold Handy had just thrown down a gantlet. Of that, Jacobus was certain, though the audience seemed unsure, as their response was perhaps slightly less enthusiastic than for Sybil Baker-Hulme. The tension between the two academics was palpable, even from Jacobus's end of the table.
'You can talk about music,' Bronislaw Tawroszewicz began, interrupting Jacobus's musing. 'But the people don't buy tickets to hear talk. They buy tickets to hear music.
'Most important thing is sound. Big sound. Beautiful sound. We have great instruments. Why not use them? Use full bow! Use vibrato! Why not? When I conduct chamber orchestra we play with energy. We make thirty musicians sound like sixty, not fifteen. Like Harold says.'
Though it was by no means certain to Jacobus that this was what Harold had actually meant, it was clear Tawroszewicz was attempting to stake out different territory from Baker-Hulme, even if that territory was at the boundary of acceptable contemporary practice.
Tawroszewicz then proceeded to list all the great conductors and musicians, with their historic pedigrees, with whom he had worked from the time he had emerged from the cradle. They included many who Jacobus had only heard about by reputation, as they had been trapped behind the recently dismantled Iron Curtain. But the litany also included many he had never heard of, and as the list lengthened like an afternoon shadow, Jacobus unsuccessfully stifled a yawn, which did not go undetected by the speaker next to him.
'In old days, the instruments made a bad sound and the bows were weak,' Tawroszewicz resumed, finally circling back to the subject. 'Why should we try to play like that? That's not how we learn to play the violin or the viola or cello.'
'Oh, please, Bronislaw!' Sybil Baker-Hulme interrupted with some heat.
'Down, girl!' Hedge said, seeking to lower the temperature.
'But really!' she continued. 'Bronislaw doesn't know the difference between Bach and Brahms, let alone Bach and Boccherini. It all sounds like day-old porridge when he conducts.'
Jacobus was happily awake again.
'Sybil,' Hedge intervened, 'you will certainly have the opportunity to make your points in the Q and A. What do you say we let Bronto finish having his say?'
'If he must,' Sybil said and sighed.
'All I say is,' Tawroszewicz said, 'why should we always play vegetarian? Sometimes there is meat.'
The pregnancy of the ensuing pause finally gave birth to the awareness that Tawroszewicz was finished.
'Thank you, Bronislaw,' Dean Hedge said, eliciting modest applause.
'Now I would like to turn to our special guest, Daniel Jacobus, for what will undoubtedly be a unique perspective.'
Jacobus reminded himself once more of Yumi's final entreaty before he went onstage: 'Jake, promise me you won't piss people off.'
Jacobus's decades of teaching had taken place in the privacy of his living room. One teacher, one student. With the anticipatory silence, he now felt hundreds of eyes drilling into him, blind though he was. And unlike a performance, he had neither the composer's voice with which to speak, nor his violin through which to speak. Suddenly, his lips were parched. He felt for the glass of water, took a sip, and then fumbled for the microphone. In the heat of the moment he neglected to feel its dimensions and brought it too close to his mouth. When he said, 'The first thing,' it almost deafened the entire audience, and several people yelled out, 'Turn it down!' Some laughed. How the hell had he let Yumi talk him into this? He moved the microphone an inch farther away.
'The first thing to remember,' he started again, 'is that ninety percent of the music they composed then, as now, was crap.'
The audience must have felt this new perspective was either irreverent or refreshing, because it elicited a definite buzz. That didn't surprise Jacobus, though it hadn't been his goal. He was just telling the truth. He imagined Sybil Baker-Hulme already beginning to harrumph, but he thought he heard Handy chuckle.
Suddenly there was a cry. Or was it a shout? Whatever it was, it was muffled and short-lived. And it seemed to have come from over Jacobus's right shoulder, but too distant to have been onstage. Backstage, perhaps. Was someone already protesting his point of view? His choice of words? A disgruntled student who hadn't managed to get a seat and needed to advertise his backbench status? It could have been a her, not a him, but it had come and gone so quickly that Jacobus, focused on his message, couldn't categorize it. It was probably nothing, but it unsettled the audience sufficiently for Hedge to feel the need to bring the gathering back into focus.
'Ladies and gentlemen,' he said from his podium. 'We all know of Mr Jacobus's reputation for provocative ideas. But let's at least offer him a chance to provoke before we evoke, shall we? Mr Jacobus, you were saying something about crap?'
If nothing else, Jacobus thought, Hedge knew how to work a crowd.
'Yes,' Jacobus said. 'What I was saying is that being a musician wasn't an obsession or a religious calling. That's the Hollywood version. It was a job. A craft, like a mason or a butcher. You made a living. When the boss said, "The Grand Poobah is coming for dinner tonight. We need two hours of music," you wrote two hours of music or you were out on the street. Composers scrawled music as quickly as possible using stock formulas with predictable results. It was generally intended to be very easy to play, partly because most musicians weren't particularly good, and also because the music had to be copied by hand at breakneck speed – meaning it was filled with mistakes. And there simply was no time to rehearse adequately. So, performances by most orchestras in those days were probably on the level of a bad high school these days.
'One problem with all this talking about how people played during this period of music or that period of music is that it assumes two things: first, that there have actually been such things as periods of music; and second, that there was one right way and any other way was wrong. You remember that Broadway show, My Fair Lady? Remember what's-his-name? The lead fella?'
Someone shouted out, 'Rex Harrison.' Another, 'Henry Higgins.'
Jacobus took a sip of water. His voice was already getting hoarse. He would wrap things up quickly.
'Thank you. Henry Higgins. Remember how he could identify a dozen distinct accents within London alone? Well, just think of Italy in the eighteenth century. Think of the geography. You go from your village, over the hill to the next valley – which in those days took eight hours, not eight minutes, so you almost never went – and you can't understand a single word of your own paesanos. Why not? Because they speak a different language! Not a different accent. Not a different dialect. They spoke a different goddamn language! Given those circumstances, you really think there would be a single style to play music?
Excerpted from Spring Break by Gerald Elias. Copyright © 2017 Gerald Elias. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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