The man in the dark suit walked slowly and deliberately as he carried the violin case through the back alleys. The graffitti-infested walls had been constructed from the ruins of ancient temples, which honored the gods, man and the democratic process. Now they served as borders for urban passageways that got narrower and more claustrophobic with each new civilization.
This Athenian night was cold, as was the heart of Yannis Diamantis. In actuality, he was more wood than cold. Stiff, dry and possibly petrified. The forty-year-old lieutenant of the old order accepted cruelty as inevitable, oppression of the weak by the strong as the natural order of the universe.
He entered through the stage door of the gathering place, joined by his other comrades, men from highly intelligent background from all over Europe, most with private Swiss bank accounts.
The Greeks had been over-run by Persian chariots, Roman cavalry, the Crusaders’ bootheel, Turkish war wagons, German tanks, and now it was American dollars. Still, the Greeks knew how to be the freest conquered people in the world. Though the textbooks said that democracy was a gift from the gods, it was actually stolen from the heavens by mortal Promethian heroes who were destined to pay for their sins one day. Such a hero awaited Yannis inside the converted warehouse.
The assembly gathered without a single word. They followed Yannis’ lead, as they always did, opening the cases which housed their weapons, the tools which gave definition to their existence and allowed them to live as aristocrats in a world which was moving more towards Flower Power chaos every day.
When the stew got boiled down to the bone, it was 1967. The radios on the streets pumped out the latest Beatles, Stones and Dylan tunes as fast as each new drug or moral experiment could inspire it. But inside the assembly, it was an earlier time, its cadence set and defined by the Swiss time pieces worn by every member of the congregation—all except one.
A man plowed through the front door, a stale donut in his mouth. He scribbled out his latest plan to redefine the world on a bootleg copy of Rolling Stone. His unwashed hair flowed over his shoulders, his three-month mustache complimented a two-week-old beard. His jean jacket was unbuttoned, the plaid shirt underneath open to the navel. Underneath the hippie-biker facade lay a Herculean physique framed by a mortal’s body.
Though Alan Kewalski was no Mister America, he was sprung up tight–eager, willing and able to take on a thousand Goliaths, whether they were clad in full Green Barret battlegear or Wall Street pinstripe suits. Before the 29 year old American expatriate sat a more powerful enemy of foes–the first row of twenty backed up by three more behind it.
It would be a battle royal, the primal struggle. Unquenchable fire vs. immovable ice. Alan knew there would be only one winner, as did his opponents. He drew out the last few notes of yet another battle plan, as non-cognizant of the people in front of him as they were non-understanding of his ultimate objective. The Revolution would be felt, designed and implemented TODAY, no matter how fiercly the stone-faced aristocrats resisted.
The first trumpeter shot out a long, loud piecing blast—ironically, a middle C. The other players synchronized their instruments to his, horns, drums, pipes, flutes, and strings set to attack the musical objective at hand in under twenty seconds flat–and sharp. The battle between symphony and conductor was about to begin, for the last time…once again.
Yannis, head bowed, his will resolute, approached Alan. “Maestro Kewalski, we are ready to begin. On schedule.”
“In a minute,” Alan related while frantically scribbling down the finale fortissimo chords of a rock opera which had been pounding in his head for the last three days.
“Maestro,” Yannis repeated. “Maestro?”
Alan stuck his head up, oblivious to everything except the vision in his head now materializing on the page. It was a private victory, but a sweet one. The connecting link between all the themes worked! Angst was magically dissolved by the joy of primal discovery, a rush known only to the boldest of artists. Alan had taken a homemade football all the way to the musical Superbowl and it was his victory run–the magical moment when only he scored yet another touchdown against his primal component, Dead Air.
“Maestro,” Yannis repeated with a dignified voice, a pleading tone. “We have a schedule.”
“You can’t schedule inspiration, my friend,” Alan related with a voice that had gone raspy from a 72-hour writing marathon. “You can’t schedule inspiration.”
The Swiss and German-trained musicians snubbed their noses, shook their heads and waited for the Julliard drop-out to finish his fit of “inspiration”, or to work his way out of whatever new drug he was into. Little did they know that though Maestro Kewalski knew every drug dealer from Paris to Ankara, he never toked, shot up, or drank anything other than primal fire. Inner madness was Alan’s drug of choice, best enjoyed straight.
Yannis had been brought up to obey God, the Church and everything that Alan labeled “Establishment”. But of all the people on both sides of the Atlantic, Yannis was Alan’s best friend. A part of Alan knew that, but not the part that got carried away with inspiration, or madness.
Yannis cleared his throat. “Maestro. Please. ” English having failed, he resorted to his native tongue, more pleasing to Alan’s ears than American ever was. “Patakalo.” But–
“One more bridge, just one more…” Alan completed the piece, scribbling the last scratches on the donut wrapper and made the victory against the Dull Our Demon known with a rebel yelp as loud as any bolted out by Jeb Stuart’s Confederate Cavalry. Touchdown AND field goal accomplished, witnessed and recorded where it REALLY counts. The matter of executing the vision was just details. Funding, air time and people were always just details to Alan. The sharing of a common vision was the most important thing, that Vision having earned the right to be manifest by being incubated in his own, lone, soul. Being pregnant with vision was not only an eccentricity, but a necessary sustenance, with which he could never be without, no matter how many fans worshipped his music and how many funders threw money into his pockets.
But his next vision would have to be shared with people who spent their lives with eyes closed, or, at best, looking downward. The assignment was on the page in front of him—the score by his closest friend, and mentor. “I hope we can get it right this time, Ludwig,” he confessed in desperation to the Beethoven score laid out for him by Yannis.
He looked up at the Athenian National Orchestra, his eyes somehow fixed on everyone at the same time. “Let us begin. Please,” he said softly, in English, then in Greek, in a very American accent, fully aware that though he had been living in Greece for nearly a year, he still depended on gestures or interpreters to buy a loaf of bread.
The first violinist nodded. Petros Karabellis had trained twenty years in five countries for the conductor post. A second-place winner in five German competitions, he had won more prizes for playing Bach than any Greek, his skill in the precision of the notes rather than their lyrical interpretation. By all logic the conductor’s chair was to go to Petros, but whenever Alan Kewalski entered anywhere, logic slipped out the back door. Karabellis was not going to accept an American “please” from a Draft-dodger who bastardized the Old Masters’ works by combining them with rock, jazz and Cajun rhythms. Karabellis’ battle with Maestro Kewalski would be ideological, political, spiritual, and to the death, no matter how many smiles they exchanged. The stakes—the orchestra itself, trained by Petros, now directed by Kewalski after the death of the venerated George Nicholoulias, a traditionalist’s traditionalist.
But this was about Beethoven, and—the moment. And—“The Leonora Overture…” Alan announced to the orchestra. Yannis translated in a terse, informational voice.
“By Ludwig van Beethoven…” the rebel-Maestro shouted out, praying that the musicians would understand and feel the subtext behind the other composer Alan considered greater than himself. Yannis repeated the words with a soft pianissimo volume and a gentle tone, attempting to remind Alan that the old Master’s greatness lay in his ability to listen with as much intensity as he spoke.
Alan nodded his head, smiling behind his eyes. “Point well taken,” his unspoken reply to Yannis as the ever-faithful assistant picked up his fiddle, taking his place next to the first violinist.
Alan took the baton in his hand, and raised it upward, holding it like a sword, fist clenched, eyes resolute. He let the Silence fill the auditorium, as was custom and necessity. The hushed montra infiltrated everyone, even Karabellis. It took a few seconds longer this time than all the others, but when it’s man vs. Infinity, a few seconds is a small time to wait, even for a man to whom patience was a vice, rather than a virtue. Then, as was not always part of the process, from the Maestro’s lips—“please” in the best Greek he could muster.
The Maestro bowed his head, closed his eyes and slashed the air in front of him with the baton with saber-like intensity. The notes coming back at him were pure, flawless and perfectly executed, but lacked one essential element. By the fifth measure, Alen knew it had gone wrong, and that it would only get worse, the chain of lifelessness continued with each progressive measure.
“No, no, no!!!” he screamed at the orchestra then screeched to the gods, burying his rage-filled head in the score written by his hero, mentor and friend.
Kerabellis smiled. With only a week left till the theater grand re-opening, there was only time for one way to play Beethoven, or anyone else—the CORRECT way. Some things had to be kept constant, civilized and non-violent. Karebellis had lost a father who was fanatical about massacring retreating Italian Fascists in WWII and an older brother who was fanatical about killing invading Macedonian Communists in the Civil War that followed. His ex-wife destroyed his marriage and ended the life of his son because she insisted that the Karabellis clan continue the battle for honor against the Moslem Turks in Cyprus. Fanatics had done enough to destroy whatever gentle goodness life could offer, and VISITING conductor Alan Kewalski was as fanatical as they came West Gibraltar. But though Karabellis didn’t say a word, every member of the orchestra owed some kind of allegiance to him, and the unspoken command now was ‘stonewall’.
Yannis watched the eyes of the two titans, seeing the drama before his weary eyes. Alan would quit, just as so many guest conductors had. Kerabellis would take over the orchestra— maybe for good this time.
Kerabellis rose, the next selection in his hand. “Bach, the master of symmetry and gentle persuasion,” he announced to the orchestra in Greek. But before he could say “BWB ANYthing”, Alan answered with a more primal kind of intelligence.
“No!!!” the Maestro yelled, then pleaded. He asked Yannis to rise, a request given begrudgingly by the sometime-translator, full-time mediator.
“The Leonora Overture was composed by Ludwig van Beethoven in 1810…” Alan shared with the musicians wavering between passion and political correctness. Yannis’ translation provided clarity, and gentility, to Alan’s rant.
“It was part of an opera entitle Fidelio. The only opera Beethoven ever wrote.”
Karebellis backed down, letting his tightened ass fall to the cushioned seat. It was up to the musicians to decide now, and though young-Turk Alan had their attention, elder Karebellis held mortgages on their souls.
Alan saw and felt the power, and paternalism, behind Karebellis’ smile. All the Maestro had was the facts. “Fidelio says nothing about the intricacies of the most basic human pleasures as does Mozart’s Don Giovanni,” the Maestro confessed as he spoke of the work he insisted be the featured concert piece, despite violent opposition from every level of the Ministry of Culture. “It lacks the courtly elegance of Strauss’ Rossenvavelier. The musical finesse of Rossini, even ‘William Tell’, goes beyond anything Ludwig put into ‘Fidelio’. And by way of comedy in the libretto, even ‘Die Meistersinger’ pops a bigger laugh.”
The orchestra shared a muttering of laughter. Cordiality had won the day, and perhaps the concert program. Karebellis’ victory seemed assured, when from Kewalski’s sorrowful mouth blasted—
“Fidelio gets its point across a hell of a lot faster than Wagner’s Lohengrin, and unlike ANYthing by Rossini, Mozart or Pucinni, speaks to the fire in the belly, not the gossip-box between the ears!” The die having been cast, the commitment made, the elder members of the orchestra nearly driven into a heart attack by the intensity of delivery, the obvious had to be stated. “It’s about liberation…A prisoner’s defiance in the face of political oppression. And his wide, Leaonra, who sets out to find him. The most basic emotion, and the most universal kind of love.”
Even Karebellis had to agree, in letter and spirit. Still, the main point at hand needed to be explained.
“Leonora disguises herself and infiltrates the dictator’s prison,” story-teller Kewalski related, rediscovering the tale inside himself while telling it those who may, or may not, have heard it. It was Yannis’ official duty, and private pleasure, to translate. “Her eyes are opened when she goes into the jail and sees what powerful men do to ‘common’ men. She hears that her revolutionary husband is probably dead, but she doesn’t give up. She becomes committed to saving the whole Goddamn world, starting with a man in the worse torture cell in the place, who she doesn’t even know. ”
It all came back. Musicians who were trained to play the notes, and barely pay attention to the story they were backing up recalled the training. Others put on their ‘to do’ list, a reading of the libretto. Karebellis knew he had been had, THIS time. He anticipated the Maestro’s next blow, bracing himself for the worst.
“Leonora becomes COMMITTED to something!” Alan screamed with the fervor of a Baptist Preacher who had just seen God, Jesus and Saint Peter. “Committed to become the Fire of Liberation! Therefore, when playing Beethoven, play it with FIRE!!! FIRE!!! PERONIUS!!!”
Alan made the rounds, to every instrument, demonstrating the passion he demanded, repeating the only Greek word he could ever pronounce correctly. “PERONIUS!!!” he yelled to the trumpeter after blasting out the liberation refrain from the crescendo in measure 19. “PERONIUS!!!” to the flutist following his demonstration of the escalation scale from the later part of the piece which released the tension-driven engine to full throttle. “Peronius” he gently, yet firmly, related to Kerabellis after grabbing the Stradevarious out of the third violinist’s hand, showing how warmth and fire could be merged into something technically called tension, but passionately called Life.
Karellellis nodded his head. He was too smart to tell the Maestro’s pitch was off, or that he missed whole clusters of notes written on Beethoven’s original score, or that the passionate playing of the violin broke two strings which would have to be replaced out of his own pocket—again. But, for now, the upstart Yankee had won. “We’ll try it his way,” the unwritten command from Kerabellis to his crew. “Yes Sir,” the free-thinking voters said behind their grimaces.
Drenched in sweat, exhausted from every part of his physical being, Alan climbed back on the podium. “Leonora Overture Number Three, by Ludwig von Beethoven,” he related in a voice made hoarse in tone, humble in subtext. He waited for the Silence again, the Presence to take over the hall, and, at It’s command—-let the baton slash out with the first undulating chord.
Something had indeed taken over the room, and those who occupied it. Fortissomos were played loud, adagios with enough tensions behind them to erupt a volcano. The executors of the notes had been released from their shackles and seemed to enjoy the sensation of flight, even though they had never worn wings of their own. Alan heard “accomplishment” between the notes, a job well done. But—-this was a rehearsal.
Even before the last notes blasted out, Alan wondered. When it came time to share Beethoven’s gift with the world, would these by-the-numbers musicians be able to zoom out of orbit into regions beyond the realm of human experience and self-imposed limitation? Would they rocket Ludwig’s Vision into Infinity so it could be re-united once again with its Creator?
It was more than sales at the ticket box or a renewal of a contract that was at stake for the still-not-yet thirty Maestro from Mineola, New York. Alan had big plans for the National Athenian Orchestra, his host country and, eventually, the world. Music was his most effective tool, and the time clock was running out. Something in him said that unless the Revolution of the mind, body and collective political systems came fast, particularly to this country, all would be lost. The Kewalski-intuition was never wrong, the urgency meter having predicted upgrading of the Police Action in Vietnam to a full-scale War, the escalation of the Cuban Missile Crisis to mano-a-mano to the day, the assassination of JFK AND a bullet with Martin Luther King’s name on it. What was in the air in Greece was still a mystery, but it had the potential for good, or bad, depending on how he played HIS hand of cards.
But whatever the outcome, this politically-sleeping backwater Mediterranean country could lose everything unless everyone who still had a sense of conscience acted with urgency. He needed Karebellis to understand it, he needed Yannis to accept it. What the all-knowing Maestro didn’t know was that to carry out the vision THIS time, he would need a soulmate, so the Promethian fire inside wouldn’t burn him alive, or destroy everything he had built.
MJ Politis, Ph.D., D.V.M., H.B.A.R.P. (human being, aspiring Rennaisance person)