Issue 204, Spring 2013
Later, after his arrest, Vadim Semin was at a loss to explain his actions. It was a perfectly ordinary concert, perhaps not as big or as successful as he’d have liked, but the sort of charity engagement he’d fulfilled dozens of times. He had arrived in New York only late that afternoon, having been held at security in Kiev so long that he had missed his flight. His cousin was a lawyer for an opposition party in Ukraine, which usually meant factoring in an hour’s delay, but this time it had taken three. He had barely slept on the plane and in his head it was two o’clock in the morning. From the taxi, he watched expectantly for the skyline but dozed off and awoke to find himself jolting through Midtown traffic.
The concert was at the house of a retired British financier. A maid let him in and took him up to a small, dark library on the first floor. She said that Richard would be up to greet him shortly. Richard, who had spent his career in various banking concerns and government positions, now occupied his retirement promoting literacy in the developing world. He was a small, neat man, whose alert eyes and curved nose made him look like a parrot. He had no great ear for music but had set up the Piano Trust with his wife, Leonora, who had had a brief concert career. She was twenty years his junior, and Richard was enormously proud of her. Vadim had once heard him boast that she had been a pupil—and perhaps slightly more than a pupil—of Rubinstein.
Vadim changed into his concert clothes and then sat on a red velvet chair and glanced at a program. He didn’t recall having the photograph taken. Something about it embarrassed him. His broad face was lifted proudly to one side, and his eyes, peering from the high ledge of his cheekbones, seemed to look from a great distance at nothing at all. Glancing over his biography, he wondered whether “the Special School in Donetsk” was an accurate translation—“special” perhaps carried the wrong connotation. They called him a “great Russian pianist.” This error no longer surprised him, or the line about his having been “mentored by the great Ivan Shebalin.” The image always came to his mind of Vanya Shebalin stretched out on a daybed in the late afternoon, disastrously fat, perpetually refilling a glass of white wine, and berating Vadim for the coarseness of his fingerwork, interpretation, and soul.
“Vadim!” Richard appeared in the doorway, smiling. Vadim got up to greet him, inclining subtly to the right to spare him the worry of guessing which cheek he might kiss.
“I have brought you some champagne, some really fine champagne,” Vadim said.
“Thank you,” Richard whispered.
Vadim swept the champagne from its plastic bag. As he handed it to Richard, he lifted his head and inhaled deeply through his nostrils, evoking a luxury he hoped transferred to the gift.
“This is really divine. Concentrated, tight, like apples . . . ” He felt the limit of his description. It tasted good to him, but he did not really know more than that.
Richard nodded encouragingly. “Thank you,” he said again.
“No, no. It is I who should be thanking you.”
“Your name is getting around,” Richard said. “We’re hoping one of our more eminent trustees will be here this evening. And I was just talking to a man who runs a piano festival in Kraków. Kinowicz . . . or K something . . . He seems very well up on your playing.” He looked at Vadim’s scores lying on the desk. “But I won’t disturb you. I’ll pop back up and say hello at the intermission.” He looked appreciatively at the champagne again and disappeared downstairs.
Vadim went over to his coat and pulled from his pocket a large cookie that he’d meant to have for lunch. He’d played in Poland twice, once at a remote chamber-music festival, and once in a private recital at the house of an aluminum manufacturer. Perhaps this Kinowicz had been present on one of these occasions.
Taking up the program again, he read the long list of places where he had performed. Condensed like this, the towns sounded almost glamorous, obliterating memories of sparsely populated school halls, mills, and churches. There were a few notable venues from after he’d won the ukap Piano Competition, and some very prestigious ones from gala concerts he’d played as fund-raisers for his cousin’s party. He still wore the suit that had been made for these occasions, with its tangerine silk lining.
He turned the page—the Haydn sonata was missing. It was his opening piece, and they had left it off the program. Was this an oversight? An intervention? Without it, the shape of the concert would collapse: he would be starting with Schumann—remote, solipsistic. What could anyone have against the Haydn? He got up to find Richard, but when he reached the top of the stairs he saw that people were already settling into their chairs.
He stood for a moment watching the guests. Richard had joined Leonora at the front door to greet someone. It took Vadim a moment to recognize the conductor Manus Hermann. Richard was always talking about his friendship with Hermann, whom he’d met through Leonora, but the sight of him was somehow shocking. Vadim recalled a Mahler performance in London, presided over by a magnificently handsome figure with thick black hair falling back in velvet kinks from his temples. The man entering now had thin gray hair and seemed to have thickened and shrunk.
“As we know Beethoven once to have said, ‘Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.’ ” Richard stood at the front and, by the angle of his body, seemed to be addressing the piano. A murmur of agreement arose from the sole occupant of the front row, a plump woman with frizzy red hair. “I know Vadim makes me feel the truth of this whenever he plays, and I hope you can share that with me this evening.” He met Vadim’s eyes at the back of the hall, and Vadim advanced a little way down the aisle, but Richard started up again.
“It’s talent like Vadim’s that the Piano Trust wants to carry forward. When Leonora and I set up the Trust we imagined putting on a couple of concerts a year, inviting friends and music lovers to enjoy the extraordinary talent of these young artists. We are fortunate enough to have this space to share with you and this wonderful Steinway picked with the help of one of our great patrons.” Here Richard glanced at Hermann in the back row, and some people confusedly turned to look behind them. “But the demand was much greater than we realized. We were inundated with phone calls, letters, recommendations—and musicians simply began turning up. And we don’t flatter ourselves that this was entirely because of our scintillating company!” His eyes sought Leonora. “We realized that there simply was nowhere else for them to play.”
Vadim tried to think about the Schumann. On the far side of the room he spotted Oleg, a Ukrainian intelligence agent who was occasionally sent to follow him. This had started after the fund-raisers, but it followed no discernible pattern. Oleg seemed to be the only one absorbed in what Richard was saying. Vadim looked up at the ceiling and attempted to breathe his way into the opening measures of the music. Schumann, not Haydn as it should have been. He’d had a piece cut from a concert before. He’d played it anyway and had never been invited back. He felt embarrassed that Oleg should see him playing this badly organized program in front of a sparse, eccentric audience.
He inhaled slowly. He found himself imagining Schumann at the piano, excited, lonely, tired, a faint sweat moldering on his skin, maybe slightly ill. He imagined his undershirt, not quite clean. It suddenly seemed wrong to intrude on such privacy. He stared over at the piano—glossy, big bellied, monstrous.
Richard’s expression was now urgent and inward. “Gradually these concerts have taken over our lives,” he was saying. “Leonora and I can say they have been far and away the most rewarding thing we have ever done.” Vadim noticed Hermann whisper something to Leonora. His hand touched her back and lingered there.
“We’re always hearing that classical music is closing itself off, audiences are declining, people are distracted, no one can relate. But that’s nonsense. Mozart toured Europe for years looking for work. It was difficult then, it’s difficult now. Beethoven was right, of course, music takes us to a higher world, but it is also a job.” He hesitated. A look of bewilderment passed over his face and briefly he closed his eyes. “We need to support that—if we think it worthwhile. You are of course supporting it by being here tonight,” he smiled, “but I don’t need to say how you might further support it. The envelopes are at the back of the hall!”
A few claps arose from the audience. Vadim came forward at last. He nodded, rather than bowed, without quite looking at any of them. Then in a single movement, he turned, slotted himself behind the piano, and began.
Strange, unassertive, ambiguous, the Schumann entered the room like a distant memory. Vadim was conscious of the eyes upon him and of distracted, nervous minds. There was a slight tremor in his fingers, and, for a moment, the sound was thinner than he wanted. As the melody tunneled inward, shifting from one remote harmony to another, he felt his way deeper into the keys, as if drawing the sound from the wood. He remembered the pleasurable feel of Richard’s piano—its rich bass and viola-like middle, which yielded to a gentle glow in the upper register, at once bright and pliant. Feeling the flutter in his fingers dissipate, he became suspended in the beauty of the sound.
Soon the piece took on an entirely different character. He tried to demonstrate its bright busyness, the skimming of melody over accompaniment. He reached beneath the jolt of the rhythm for a sadness that seemed to carry over from the opening. But he sensed he was losing the audience. The change of mood seemed to have shaken loose their attention. For an instant, he panicked and could only cling to the barest structure of the lines.
Before the next section, he took a far longer pause than the music required. He heard the chink of glasses being set out in an adjacent room. Just to his right a man was sitting in buttoned coat and hat as though he might leave. He saw the reflection of his fingers in the keyboard lid and heard someone whisper a question. He waited for the response and then resumed, anchoring his sound and rhythm in the probing gloom of the inner voices. He felt now that he was playing against the audience—the intense loneliness of the music seeming to work in opposition to them, because of them. He emphasized notes that were merely grazed by each hand so that a mysterious inner melody arose from the surrounding texture. His fingers felt like liquid. For a moment, a broader vision seemed to hover on the fringes of his perception. He almost vanished—melted into it. It fluttered, danced, came close. But he could not grasp it, not quite. And, as he dimly perceived this, he seemed to fall outside the music. He felt it through his body. His fingers—hundreds of sensory nerves—withdrew. He heard a faint squeak in the pedal. Under the lid of the piano he glimpsed Richard’s face and thought he saw in it the mild shock of disappointment.
Back in the library, Vadim sat holding the score of the Beethoven sonata he was to play in the second half. He felt a strange sense of shame, as though he had dragged a group of tourists to a sacred spot, only to suspect that it wasn’t sacred at all. Near his mother’s house in Dikanka there had been a shrine containing a mud-spattered Virgin Mary and two orange glowing candles. As a child he’d feared the statue until a school friend picked it up and showed him how light it was. There had been a manufacturer’s label on the bottom.
He looked down at the score and ran his finger gently down a small tear in the cover. The guards at the airport had ripped it as they inspected his luggage. An enormous woman with a baton had rifled through his suitcase while her superior questioned him. He’d had to explain the “nature of his trip” so many times that he’d begun to misunderstand it himself. He had not been able to say for sure if he was being paid for his performance. It was a charity concert, he’d told them.
He watched from the window as some of the guests wandered into a small garden at the back. Leonora and Hermann were standing by a table at the far end. Leonora was holding her glass with both hands. Hermann was smoking. Neither one spoke.
Hearing Richard on the stairs, he stood and pretended to look at a small painting on the wall opposite.
“Vadim, that was simply marvelous,” Richard said. “I have brought someone to meet you.” Behind him was Oleg. “This is Viktor Klikowicz, who directs the festival in Kraków.” Vadim looked steadily at Oleg, who offered Vadim his hand.
“I am honored,” Vadim murmured, and turned again to the picture. “I was just admiring this . . . ”
“Oh yes, Musicians Afloat in the Night Sky. Leonora brought it back for me from Paris for our twentieth wedding anniversary.” They all looked at the picture.
“This must be a Chagall,” Oleg said, with faint displeasure.
“It’s extraordinary,” Vadim said. “I have been trying to understand its symbols.”
“The two moons,” Richard said, pointing at one, then the other. “Such an amazing ghostly yellow. You can see the same color in the face of the horse floating above the violinist.” He glanced hopefully at Oleg. “I’ll leave you two to enjoy it.”
“Interesting piece, the Schumann,” Oleg remarked in Ukrainian when Richard had gone. “It’s new to your repertoire, isn’t it?”
Vadim was surprised by the softness of his voice.
“I haven’t played it in a few years.” Oleg said nothing. “For me, it’s a little fragile in performance. It’s so private, it feels almost vulgar to play it in public.”
“Yes, I can see you feel that way.”
“It took me a while to warm up.”
“You need to be careful, Vadim,” said Oleg.
“You are allowing yourself to become distracted.”
“Allowing?” Vadim said.
“You performed so boldly for the judges at ukap. And won. How long has it been—five years?”
“It maybe depends for whom one is playing.”
“There is a man in the second row here who did not even bother to take off his hat.”
They were both silent. Vadim saw that Oleg had one of Richard’s envelopes slotted into the program he was holding. “If you’ll excuse me, I must get ready,” he said. “Perhaps Richard will have you join us for dinner.”
Alone again, Vadim stood in the dim light of the library. He felt a chill and pulled his jacket tight. The pastel pinks and blues of the Chagall were the only life in the room, and he was drawn back toward it. He stared at the fluid swoops of color. The picture stirred nothing in him, and yet standing here alone with it, he was struck by the curious privilege of owning such an object, of possessing so directly the material on which the artist had pressed his hand and rested his gaze for so many hours.
The opening fanfare exploded from his fingers as if he had taken the piece by the scruff of the neck and shaken the chords from it. He threw himself at its reckless rhythms and harmonies, trying to give himself up to its mania and destructiveness, but the result was coldly physical. Only his fingers seemed to be holding the colossus in place, rattling the notes from one end of the keyboard to the other.
As he reached the end of the scherzo, he felt a terrible exhaustion. The clangorous accents sounded out correctly but dryly. He thought with dread of the slow movement that would follow. Already he could remember nothing of the past fifteen minutes. He watched as his fingers swept over the keys. They seemed trapped in this black-and-white matrix like a bird that has flown into a room and cannot find its way out.
He was aware of the busts of composers arranged like custodians at intervals in the alcoves around the room: Wagner, Berlioz, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert. And the piano—set in the window before magnificent sash curtains. And the paintings covering the walls, like a giant stamp collection. There was an overpowering smell of coats and handbags and heavy perfume. He remembered the hot practice rooms in Donetsk where he’d often practiced these same notes for eight hours straight. The whole endeavor seemed ridiculous. Learning to repeat what so many had been repeating for years. Tapping a piece of wood.
There was a wrong note in the chord under his hands and he was forced to hold it. He lifted his head and breathed in, feeling a mixture of pain and curiosity at the dissonance. He felt revolted by the piece’s overweening concern with its own greatness and he experienced a violent resentment toward those who were listening. He resolved to play the final fugue devoid of expression, and as fast as possible.
A lady with huge smudges of purple eye makeup was explaining to him her love of Chopin. Did he play any Chopin, the woman was asking. Behind him he heard Richard mention another Trust pianist who would be touring Italy next summer. Vadim had met the pianist. He played showily and worthlessly.
He accepted another glass of champagne from a little girl who had been sitting at the back earlier, and Richard put a hand on his shoulder.
“Vadim, you must meet a fan of yours. This is Manus Hermann. He heard you in the finals of ukap. Slightly grander circumstances than here, of course, and on a much finer instrument!” He turned to Hermann and added, “We’ve been having terrible problems with the piano recently. The humidity.”
“A great pleasure to meet you,” Vadim began.
Hermann looked wary and evasive, harried not just by this moment, but years of such moments.
“Manus is a great supporter of our Trust,” Richard said. “But it’s so rare we get to see him these days.”
“I was recently listening to your Shostakovich,” Vadim said. “It’s exceptionally taut.” He was aware of the difficulty of having to select each word in a foreign tongue. “Such great foreboding.”
Manus looked perplexed: “Which Shostakovich do you mean?”
For a moment, Vadim wondered if he had misremembered, but a strong image of the CD, with Manus’s name in red block type against a Soviet-style background, persisted in his memory. Exhaustion hit him again—he wondered if it was the champagne. He looked at the small folds of fat where Hermann’s neck met his collar.
“The fifth symphony.”
“Ah yes!” Manus said. “The strings on that recording . . . ” The two men fell silent.
Oleg had reappeared and was standing at the far end of the room. Excusing himself, Vadim picked up two more glasses of champagne from the little girl as he crossed the room.
Oleg stood with the plump red-haired woman who’d sat alone in the front row earlier. They were in front of a colossal painting of a musical scene. “We think this one could be the worst in his collection,” Oleg said to Vadim when he joined them. “Do you think any of these figures were actually conceived of together—as a group supposedly aware of one another?”
Vadim looked; a violinist, singer, and horn player gathered round a piano. He wondered whether any music had ever been composed for such an ensemble.
“How did you like my Beethoven?” he asked, handing Oleg one of the glasses of champagne. But before Oleg could answer, the woman turned to him.
“I have never been so touched by that slow movement before,” she said. Her eyes seem to grow larger and rounder as she spoke. Vadim felt embarrassed but found himself holding her gaze. He had the strange sensation of his eyes expanding with hers.
“Thank you,” he said.
The woman continued to stare as though she were expecting him to say something further.
“Come, let’s sit,” Oleg said, gesturing toward some chairs behind them. The figures in the painting looked menacing from this angle. Vadim had a sense of the canvas lurching forward, as though it might fall. A glass dropped to the floor in front of him. He watched the shards spin, riveted by their energy. It took him a moment to realize the glass was his own. He bent down to pick up the pieces.
“Careful!” said Oleg.
“It’s fine, don’t worry,” said Vadim, gathering the larger pieces in his hand. Swerving round to scan the floor behind, he stuck out a hand to steady himself and felt a sharp pain. He stood up, examining his palm. A small shard of glass seemed to be embedded there. He tried to squeeze it out but blood welled up and obscured the wound.
“You’ve cut yourself!” Oleg said. “We should get a brush.”
“It’s just a scratch,” Vadim said, pulling out a handkerchief and wiping the blood away. No one else in the room had noticed.