Monday, April 4, 2011

Music and idealism as the wall comes tumbling down (Books - The Student Conductor by Robert Ford)

Tom called Robert Ford's The Student Conductor one is his 10 best neglected literary classics. That and the classical music theme were good enough reason for me to check it out.

Set in Karlsruhe Germany around the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ford writes with vivid clarity.
Barrow woke to the hard yank of an oncoming train and caught the whisper of the last orange car as it passed. Outside, the German sun flung itself in all directions, glanced from the rails, perfected clouds. It was the kind of day they polish steel for.
Cooper Barrow, his protagonist, is a young American conductor who faces disillusionment early in his career, forcing him off the podium one day in the middle of his debut concert. Eight years later, he comes to Germany to study under the baton of Karlheinz Ziegler, a charismatic and dictatorial master teacher to try to restart his career. Ford skillfully weaves together three forces - artistic idealism, political passion, and good old human lust to create a intense drama. I found him most skillfull at writing scenes of strong tension. At his initial audition Ziegler asks Barrow, disheveled from his train ride, to "conduct" movements from standard repertoire symphonies and concerti without an actual orchestra. That is, to manufacture the orchestra and the sound he would have them make, with the expressions of his body. As he does so, he is quizzed on his orchestra's size, arrangement, and his choices for tempi:
"First symphony, fourth movement."

Beethoven's First - it had to be. The coincidence struck him. His last time before an orchestra, it had also been Beethoven's First.

His wrists shook. The hall was a cavernous void, nothing but a place to breathe. He raised his arms, left palm up, stick delivered straight forward. Conjure orchestra -

"You're shaking!"

Thanks, he thought. He'd crossed an ocean for this.

His arms opened to embrace the solid trunk of the fourth movement's opening fortissimo, and with a simple flick of the wrist he indicated an upbeat, released the opening sonority. The thick chord sprang up in his head. Full orchestra. Tutti. He held it, widened the embrace just so much, swiftly cut it off.

"Halt, halt, halt! Wie gross ist das Orchester?"

He would not have thought to ask -

"How large is the orchestra?" the teacher demanded, in English this time.

"I understand," Barrow shouted back in German, noting the shrillness in his voice. "Modern orchestra. Eighteen firsts, sixteen seconds, viola twelve, cello - "

"Aufstellung."

The English, the English -

"Aufstellung?!"

Arrangement.

"Traditional. Firsts here, seconds here, celli..." Barrow indicated the placement of violins to his left, celli to his right -

"Continue," yelled the teacher in German - it would always be German, German from here on in.

The opening six bars consumed thirty minutes of harassment. The correct length of the eight note, the gradations of soft, softer, softest, their precise indication with his hands. A good conductor would never rehearse a full orchestra this way, this stopping and starting; they would mutiny. He would call out suggestions, cajole in passing, return only later to pick up what was missing.

Barrow began the new tempo, the Allegro molte e vivace -

"Too loud, too loud!"

There's no fucking orchestra!

He fought the impulse to turn, face his accuser. He didn't have to. The teacher had advanced to the lip of the stage, and it was Barrow's first look a Maestro Karlheinz Ziegler...
What Ford is best at is creating passages full of tension, made of the characters' emotions, their charged mileu and, often, music. It definitely helps to have some knowledge of classical repertoire in reading this novel. Where he falls short is in his plotting, which so engineers his coincidences of past and present that one can feel them coming. The climax and denouement of the book left me a bit unsatisfied, because the mysteries hinted at in the major characters are too set-up. This flaw aside I really recognized the people and places (I worked in the field for years) and the mind-games of a guru-like maestro. I enjoyed the characters, and I read the book compulsively, in two sittings, the second keeping me up quite late. There is a fabulous scene between Ziegler and Cooper that takes place in a sauna toward the end of the book that contains stunningly tense writing. It is reason enough to read the book.

Following reading it, I was sorry not to be able to find anything else by Ford - is there anything you know of, Tom?

1 comment:

Thomas at My Porch said...

I am glad you enjoyed it. I was so happy to see that someone else in the world has read this book. As far as I have been able to find Robert Ford hasn't written anything else.