First Chapter: Appassionato

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Appassionato, the next novel in my series, “The Music We Made,” continues the story of three generations of the Driscoll family of musicians — from London and beyond.

After the first novel, Bravura, brought siblings Kate and Neil Driscoll and their circle of friends and loves, from the 1960s to the early 1990s, Appassionato begins as Neil’s daughter, composer/conductor Jenny Driscoll, begins her own professional career. The book will follow her from the 1990s to the present day, from young adulthood into middle age.

The Appassionato trailer can be seen here, with the first chapter following:

Chapter One

Jenny waited in the wings, her baton in hand. The orchestra tuned. Her Aunt Kate had always told her that in these few moments before stepping onstage, she would hear voices, sometimes even see an image flutter before her. So many things pulse through a performer before they step into the light. Jenny sometimes sensed these things too. Tonight, however, she saw and felt nothing. She only saw the conductor’s podium ahead, empty, surrounded by grey metal railing, ready to receive her without fanfare; the full symphonic orchestra, complete with all woodwinds, percussion, string basses, even piano.

When the concertmaster finished tuning, the audience ceased their murmurs, a moment of silent pervaded Royal Albert Hall.

Most in the seasoned audience did not know this young woman about to complete her graduate studies at the Royal School of Music — only 24 but seasoned beyond her years. Most saw at first only that she was stunning: trim and taller than average, brown, wavy hair long but fastened in part near the top, arms chiseled from now-four years of intense study in conducting, piano and composition.

Composition, the one thing that had eluded her famous musical family. Somehow, the heavens gave Jenny Driscoll this gift. Not her father Neil Driscoll, the seasoned pianist and instructor at Royal; not her late mother Maggie Crawford, the star American soprano gone too soon; not her surrogate mother, Kate Driscoll Andrews, the violinist and near-household-name who still toured the world; nor others in her circle of family and friends.

But Jenny had it. She heard music when she was stuck in traffic. When a lover breathed deeply beside her in the small hours of night and morning. She heard it in the buzz of a television when the Emergency Broadcast System invaded a show; she heard it when her computer and MIDI piano keyboard booted up in the morning. Jenny heard melodies and rhythms in the obvious and not at all obvious places — so much so that people at times wondered if she was listening to them when they opened up to her. Something about her wide brown eyes, her easy smile, made people want to talk to and be with Jenny; something in her face and body relayed the presence of a heart ready to embrace, ready to hear, ready to love, and yes, ready to attack if necessary. Very little drove her to that these days, like in her youth when she railed against a fate that she did not choose. Over the years she worked hard to fight her teenage demons. They were not entirely gone, but they were, for the most part, at bay. For now.

Tonight, Jenny would premiere her symphonic poem, Appassionato, her piece de resistance as she concluded graduate school, her final — composed in a form hearkening back to Liszt, Berlioz, Strauss — a continuous single movement inspired by another piece of art or triumph of nature. It was her tribute to all the influences that came before her — but its style, its pace and array of motifs were entirely of the current, the 1990’s, truly a transitional time in modern classical composition, she had come to learn from her professors. “Anything goes now,” they told her, “but your foundation and direction have to have their proper roots, their full understanding of the range of music.”

Appassionato was not based on a poem or novel, a painting, sculpture. Rather, it focused on the spiritual Passion of Christ, a tip of the hat to Handel and Bach, but in modern terms, as if Jesus walked the streets today and heard the chants of gangs, hung out with the homeless, heard the shots of guns, sat in urine and spit in an under-funded county jail, with inmates ready to have their way with him; endured the noise and chaos of a municipal courtroom, and an unjust execution by vigilantes in the woods fancying themselves righteous, carrying out ungodly acts where no one would see. The percussion section, for the first time they could recall, would have to slash whips and chains, stab truck tires, bang a car door, and slam a gavel repeatedly — alongside strings and winds pouring out passages of pain and love and sacrifice.

A single male voice, The Son, and a single female voice, The Mother, stood upstage center, and would be called on at key moments to vocalise wordless tones — groans of prayer, of agony, and eventually, of praise. A modern retelling, reliving, of his horror, which fascinated her ever since she first had to wrestle with death and God as an eight-year-old. And she had never been the same since.

Her choice had raised a few eyebrows among the agnostic faculty, but Jenny didn’t care. Once a creative idea entered her, it took hold and wouldn’t let go until she gave it everything she had. And even then, even on a night like this, it was still hard for her to let it go or consider it ‘finished.’

In that moment of silence in the wings, where so much raced through her mind, Jenny took a deep breath to push down the knots churning her insides. With no ghosts or murmurs in her ear or eye, she strode onto the stage.

Reaching the conductor’s podium, Jenny grabbed the grey square railing, turned toward the audience and bowed to them all, drinking in the spotlight and cascading applause. She waved her hand acknowledging the orchestra, shook the hand of the concertmaster, whom she knew from school, then resolutely turned around and stepped onto the podium, about eighteen inches from the stage floor and about three feet square. Her black music stand had been placed at the top middle of the square, her printed score atop it, full of handwritten notes she no longer needed to be reminded of.

With her eyes and slightly-elevated chin, she commanded the orchestra’s silence and respect. She raised her baton and began the downbeat, never needing to look at the score. Jenny knew this piece like every sunspot on her forearm, every scar from childhood, every high school diary entry. She knew when the woodwinds needed to breathe, when the violinists would change direction in their bow strokes, when the brass needed to wet their lips and reapply them to their mouthpieces for their solo transitions.

Although she wouldn’t always be on this pedestal when her works were introduced to the world, this was where she needed to be today, to complete her thesis at the Royal School, or RSM as many called it: onstage at Royal Albert Hall, enticing and entreating the notes out of the veteran musicians, who all had seen everything and perhaps didn’t care so much about the newbie leading them tonight. But the new girl, they had noted during rehearsal breaks the prior weeks, was an old soul; she had decades — centuries, really — of music in her bones, her cells and sinews. Look at the family she came from, they added.  She lived and breathed her composing and could stand her own with any of them, most of them admitted. Except the composer herself – even she, with all the pedigree in the world – found her insides thorny with self-doubt on many, many days.

Thirty minutes later, when she finished leading them through Appassionato with a flourish, Jenny turned back to the crowds, luminous in the hot light and bowing.

‘This is what you wanted for me,’ Jenny thought. ‘All those years of practice and training, harder than I’ve ever done anything. It all led me back here. Oh, Mom! I wanted so much for you to be here tonight! Some nights I still feel I could almost touch you, but then I can barely breathe. You make me fall to pieces, even now. Nothing, no one, will ever heal me of that.’

She bowed, deeply, holding the railing, squeezing her eyes shut, flooding with memory — the last birthday, the last letter, the last embrace.

Only Neil, her father in the audience, noticed and knew she was thinking of Maggie: his Maggie, to whom he still kissed the sky every day. He — and one other — noticed Jenny’s flush face holding it all back as she took her last bow and strode off the stage into the wings to catch her breath.

———————-

Onward. Appassionato will be released in Winter, 2015.

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