Arietta

Introducing Alexandre Meisel

Rio, 1982

When Alex was three years old, he announced to his mother that he needed a piano teacher. "You can't be my teacher because you don't play like the woman in that record. I want to play like her."

He was tired of books. He knew all of them by heart and his mother wouldn't give him the big blue ones at the top of the shelf. She'd taught him a few songs on the piano, like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, and she seemed to think they were so much fun, but Alex just found them booooring. The woman from the record played exciting music, and he already knew it by heart too, so all he needed was someone to teach him how to move his fingers and he'd be able to play it.

Alex looked up at his teacher, feet dangling in the air. Claudio's expression was always nice, he thought, a lot like his mother's, but a bit less serious. He'd just played a C chord with his right hand, a triplet right in the middle of the piano, but the sounds he liked the most were to the left, sounds that went down, vibrated in his stomach, gave him a much better feeling than the ones that went up and seemed to vibrate somewhere above his ears. If they went all the way up the right, it all got too bright and made him want to squeeze his eyes shut. It wasn't nearly as fun as the heavy boom that echoed from the left like the steps of a giant.

"Remember what an octave is?"

Alex nodded, his eyes immediately drawn back to the keys.

"Good, so play that chord one octave up."

Scrunching his eyebrows and shaking his head emphatically, Alex raised his left hand and stretched his fingers – do, mi, sol – one octave down.

"I like down better," he clarified, because grown-ups had the habit of asking him to do the opposite of what he wanted.

Claudio didn't say anything, just crossed his arms and watched. Alex was starting to like him. With a quick look at his teacher, he moved the chord another octave down, then another, then another, until he couldn't reach any further, so he jumped off the bench and moved in the direction of the sound that was pulling him.

And then he played the lowest C chord as strong as he could, many times, and the piano vibrated, agreeing with him that that's what a piano should sound like. He stopped for a second to add his right hand, just one octave higher, and it was even more fun then, even for the piano, he thought, because its wood was growling, and it didn't do that when he played the up notes.

"See? Down is much better than up!" He leaned closer to Claudio and said in a secretive whisper. "That's how you call the giants, they like the down notes."

"Ah! Yes, I know," Claudio retorted in the same conspiratorial tone. "But you know what giants like to hear? Bells!"

"Bells?" Alex was very suspicious. Why would giants like bells?

Claudio readjusted the bench and took a seat. "Yes, didn't you know? All giants have bells all over their houses, because they love this sound."

When Claudio started ringing the bells on the high notes, Alex was startled. It was so fast that he could barely see the fingers. They were blurred like vibrating metal, and it did sound like a bell, like a telephone at first, then even faster, and when it went higher and higher, it was as if something was about to happen, Alex had no idea what until Claudio's left hand started moving in the same way on the low notes – the giants were back.

"So when they arrive…you play these bells for them, and then…they stay! See how it works?"

He was silent for a long time, glancing back and forth between the spots where Claudio's hands had been. A mischievous smile broke on his face, before he finally turned his eyes to Claudio and ordered, "Do it again."

Alex really liked Claudio's story. It made perfect sense to him after he heard what the bells sounded like. Of course giants would like bells, otherwise it would just be those big thunder noises and that would be extremely boring, like eating cabbage every single day. He should have thought of that.

But what really caught his attention was that his teacher could tell a story about bells and giants on the piano. It was so much more fun than reading Jack and the Beanstalk, and if he learned how to move his fingers that fast, he'd be able to tell his own stories, because Jack was stupid and Alex had always rooted for the giant, so that's what he was going to do – he was going to learn to play even faster and louder than Claudio.

Rio, 1991

When Alex was twelve, he greeted his mother with another one of his announcements, the kind that, in his mind, was not up for debate. "I want to have muscles," he said. "I'm going to play football."

Lydia laughed, which annoyed him greatly, but her argument was a bit difficult to counter. "Football is a bit violent, no? What if you hurt your arm or your hand?"

Alex clenched his jaw. "I don't want to do weights. It's boring."

"Alexandre…" she sighed, rubbing her forehead. "You're too young to do weights. Why don't you take up swimming? There, swimming is ideal, you won't be at risk for injuries, and – "

"What, just swim back and forth? How is that any less stupid than lifting weights?"

She put her briefcase down and looked around aimlessly, and Alex knew those pauses very well. She always needed a few seconds to rake her brain for something to piss him off.

She finally put her hands on her hips and fixed her eyes on him. "Swimming develops your muscles and gives you broad shoulders."

What he really wanted was to play football, and be around those boys – he wanted to look like them. The thought that he shouldn't play sports had crossed his mind, of course, but he could never think clearly when he was watching them from the stands.

Rio, 1995

"Who cares? These competitions are ridiculous anyway, so I'm just going to play what I like this time."

Claudio remained, as always, unperturbed by these exchanges. It was a bit annoying that Claudio knew so well when and how to argue a point with him. "I just don't think Nazareth is going to – "

"Oh, they love the exoticness, they expect it from a 'South American'," he said affectedly.

After examining his fingernails a bit longer, Claudio suggested with a tired sigh, "Then why not Villa-Lobos? Something a bit more mainstream, at least."

"Have you even listened to what I did with that Nazareth piece? It's better than anything by Villa-Lobos."

"You wrote a variation?"

Alex smirked and shoved the sheet music in Claudio's direction. "Better. I wrote a fantasy. It'd been floating around in my head for a couple of months. Now it's ready and it's going to be my choice piece, so there's really no point in arguing."

Claudio ignored him, a funny look on his face as he tried to decipher what was going on in that music. When he was done, his eyebrows were glued to the middle of his forehead.

"It's…insane." He looked up at Alex with an incredulous smile and an arm stretched out with the sheets in his direction. "Play it."

Alex got up, walked to the piano and tapped his temple with his index finger. "Don't need that, you can keep it."

Berlin, 1995

Even though he'd been certain he was right from the beginning, there was nothing quite like being proved right and Claudio wrong. Alex's Nazareth Fantasy was a hit, and he was invited to play a recital at a gathering of jet setters in a castle-like mansion, which made him feel a bit like one of those courtier-type musicians from pre-war Berlin. It also made Claudio remark that he was quitting his job as Alex's chaperone after this, as his ego would finally render him utterly unmanageable.

For all he fancied himself unique, Alex shared with the most ambitious young pianists a long-suffering contempt for piano competitions. So among the things he was bringing home from Berlin, it wasn't the first prize he valued the most; it was being responsible for attracting media attention to an event that would have gone largely unnoticed, having been good enough to overshadow the exoticness of his origins, as well as the enormous boost to his confidence as a composer.

But there was also something that he left in Germany standing out in his mind: his virginity, in every possible meaning of the term. Why it had never occurred to him to do that with the boy he'd met at the gym, he didn't know, but he could only imagine the superhuman concentration he'd be able to achieve now that he knew how to make the most of that kind of exercise.

Rio, 1995

Sitting at the dinner table one evening, Alex saw his mother hesitate, caught her false starts, and knew it had to be important, because this was very different from her straightforward way of simply saying what needed to be said. Despite a certain fear of what could be so serious, it was his lack of patience for hesitation that won over.

"Can you please just come out with it? Either I did something wrong or you think I did something wrong, so…"

"Well…ok, fine. I noticed a couple of times that you…and that boy…well, I have an idea what you two were up to in those locker rooms. I thought I'd wait for you to tell me, but I think it's important to clarify a few things."

It was upsetting that his mother had figured it out. Alex remembered the back and forth that had been going on in his mind, the way he felt he was slowly building up to the perfect way to break the news. "I was going to tell you. I was worried about your reaction, so I kept…I don't know."

"Well, I wasn't exactly surprised, but to be honest I didn't expect it would…" The way she shook her head and rolled her eyes reminded him of the times she forgot something important or tried to bake. "It took some getting used to, Alex, that's all."

"That's…that's normal, right? Your reaction, I mean." he asked tentatively.

She turned to him with a closed lip smile and put her hand on top of his. "Of course. I'm fine with it, don't worry."

Alex felt a pressing need to deflect the tension, so he got up, hugged her, gave her a noisy kiss on the cheek, and declared solemnly, "I'm very proud of you."

"Oh, shut up," she laughed.

He sat back down and watched her thoughtfully. "I should have told you. It's just that…this is a bit confusing, to be honest. I mean, why are there gay people? I'd like to make sense of this in the context of…evolution or something."

"If you want the scientific explanation, I don't know. All I know is that some people are born that way and it's a natural preference, so don't let anyone tell you otherwise."

Alex remembered the things he'd heard when he still went to school, and how he never understood what the big deal was. All it did was make him think that he was too mature for those kids, and he couldn't wait to get rid of school so he didn't have to be around silly nitwits anymore.

"No, I don't care what people think. I was just wondering."

"Well, good," she replied, clearly ready to move on to the next topic in the agenda. Alex feared he knew what it was, and he could only hope she would remain as calm as she'd been until now.

"So…I noticed that boy looked more embarrassed than you, so I assumed you two weren't doing anything you're not prepared for."

"You mean anal sex?"

Her reaction was kind of funny, Alex thought. She just raised her eyebrows and sighed as if she were telling herself she should have seen this coming. Well, she should have.

"Yes, Alex, that's exactly what I mean." She blinked and added, "Aren't you well informed for someone who was 'a bit confused' just a minute ago…"

"Practice first, theory later," he said, thinking it would lighten things up.

"Alexandre! You didn't!"

Apparently not.

"Huh…no…not with that kid at the gym…but yeah, at the competition in Berlin. But don't worry, I know how to use condoms, the guy explained it all to me, it's very easy."

Alex had no idea why she wasn't the least bit reassured by that.

"Oh my god…the guy? How old was this guy?"

"I don't know, twenty? I think he was twenty."

"And where was Claudio when that happened?"

"I'm not a child," he scoffed. "Surely you don't expect Claudio to keep track of my whereabouts every single minute of the day. He was talking to some people at the reception and I sneaked out, that's all."

"All right, all right," she breathed. "You don't seem…traumatised, so – "

Alex had just put a big piece of pie in his mouth, so he tried not to choke while he laughed. "Traumatised…" That was such a crazy idea. "It was awesome. I wish I'd done it before, because it –"

"No, I happen to think sixteen is early enough," she said firmly. "Okay. Ground rules," she added, and Alex groaned. "You may think you're ready to have sex with grown men, but you're not. So don't do that anymore, it's dangerous."

Alex was a bit irritated, but there was certainly a part of him that was listening to her very attentively.

"You're going to have to find someone your own age."

He dropped his fork and let out a dramatic huff. Where the hell was he going to find these people his own age? Apart from the gym, he never went anywhere. Well, except when he was touring, but there weren't many sixteen-year-olds to be found in orchestra line-ups, now, were there?

Looking at her dejectedly, he mumbled, "You don't happen to know anyone who has a gay nephew, do you?"

London, 1997

The great Maestro waved his arms widely, not even trying to avoid the clichéd posturing, the exaggerated gesturing and self-important look of enraptured concentration. Alex felt his jaw clench at the wobbly, pretentious tempos the man was inflicting on Rachmaninoff's 3rd.

'If Russell Sherman so much as mentions your sonata to the right people, that's it, you've made it. Big. So suck it up.'

He tried, maybe not very hard, but Claudio's words did come to him while he sat at the piano and suffered. It lasted until the next outrageously misplaced forte. Then there was nothing, nothing except a furious desire to grab that baton and break it in half. And then…

"I have a better idea." The orchestra stopped almost instantly, only a few perplexed violists stuttering a couple of notes until there was silence. Perhaps the loud scraping of the bench on the wooden floor had added to the effect. The conductor turned to him with a blank expression, as though he was used to soloists interrupting rehearsals with an outburst.

"Why don't we do 4'33'' instead? I'm sure there's a piano concerto transcription somewhere."

"I'm sorry?"

"Yes, 4'33''. Then we'd both be able to play our parts the way we want."

The orchestra was frozen as though they were already in the midst of performing 4'33''. There was a low murmuring from the seats. Alex could hear Claudio lowering his head and covering his face in desperation.

"Far be it from me to stifle your interpretation with my own. You're the soloist, Mr. Meisel." He paused and bowed his head curtly.

Alex narrowed his eyes. "That's all I'm asking. This is difficult enough as it is, I'm sure a great conductor such as yourself can understand."

"I'll do my best."

This could go on forever, but Alex had that concerto itching at the tips of his fingers. He sat back down. The hall went deathly silent before the conductor announced 'Da capo.' Sheet music rustled on all the stands as musicians turned back to the first page.

As it turned out, the clash of egos was good inspiration for Rachmaninoff's 3rd. Alex pushed that Steinway to the limit, made it rage. For all the London audience was infamously difficult to please, Alex had no complaints about their reaction by the end of his third encore.

At the reception, he chatted briefly with Sherman and his wife. He was more civil then, even managed a noncommittal remark about how the performance had turned out 'fine'. The conductor was perfectly affable, seemed unperturbed by Alex's thinly-veiled hostility, which Alex took as provocation. By the end of the conversation, the effort to keep his cool had given him a pounding headache.

After excusing himself, Alex walked toward the hallway that he figured led to the restroom. On the way there, he spotted what looked to him like an escape route – glass doors leading out to the garden.

As soon as he stepped outside, he took several deep breaths and noticed the fresh air already starting to soothe his mood.

"Am I interrupting?"

Alex closed his eyes and thought of his sonata. Sherman was of no use to him anymore – he had definitely burned that bridge – but there was still hope that this person, whoever it was, might be relevant to his interests. And this reception couldn't possibly last much longer.

"Not at all," he said, turning around with a smile that he was sure looked as fake as it felt.

With a knowing look, the man offered his hand and said with equally fake formality, "It's an honour to meet you, Mr. Meisel."

"Please, call me Alex," he replied in a haughty tone, playing along.

The man laughed amiably, and Alex returned the smile. Then he complimented Alex in a sincerely enthusiastic way, made small talk, asked how he felt about his London debut. Alex retorted that it would have been perfect if it weren't for Sherman.

"Yes, he's difficult, isn't he?"

"No, I'm difficult. He's incompetent." Alex cringed inwardly. Five minutes. Five minutes were all it took for him to lose track of his plan to be diplomatic.

"Ah," the man started, amused. "It's refreshing to hear someone tell it like it is."

After putting up with all that stuffiness for hours, Alex was disarmed by the unpretentious tone, the feeling he got that there was no attempt at networking going on.

He was getting ready to reply with a light-hearted comeback when he caught the glint directed at him. He cocked an eyebrow suggestively, the man's smile widened, and there it was: the little spark that changed the very air between two people when hidden intentions were out in the open.

Alex was distracted enjoying the moment when that pleasant voice broke the silence. "I hear you're half Jewish."

"Yes, the left half. The right half likes to make anti-Semitic comments, it's very confusing."

"Wow…talented, witty, and very, very attractive. It's quite unfair."

"Isn't it?" He bit his bottom lip and held the almost obscene stare, his body reacting to the attention the way it usually did.

The man took a step closer. "Such…harmonious features. Such…piercing blue eyes," he continued with affected admiration.

It was a murmured conversation, everything said in a provocative tone, the exchanges interspersed with loaded silences.

"But…isn't 'piercing' the standard adjective for blue eyes? I'd hate to think you find me ordinary."

"Then how about sharp, cutting…" He paused. "Penetrating."

Alex fought the urge to laugh. This was rapidly approaching porn movie innuendo territory, so he stuck his tongue in the guy's mouth and put an end to the flirting stage.

When Alex backed away, the man was smiling breathlessly. "Would you like to go upstairs?"

Alex tilted his head, confused. "Upstairs?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot to introduce myself. I'm Andrew…Sherman."

Perhaps a normal person would have been mortified. To Alex, the only thing that mattered was that fucking Russell Sherman's son in his own house was glorious, glorious victory.

Chuckling quietly, he nodded. "Well played, Andrew Sherman. Very well played."

A few months later, Alex got the news that his Sonata in B minor had apparently been mentioned to the right people. Claudio didn't miss the opportunity to say I told you and Alex didn't miss the opportunity to say he didn't think it had been Sherman, it had more likely been Sherman's son. At that, Claudio left the room saying he didn't want to know. Alex's confidence in his work was such that the idea that he'd slept his way to the top actually sounded kind of glamorous.

Rio, 1998

Lydia stood against the wall with her arms crossed in front of her chest, her jaw set. Alex knew she wouldn't move, wouldn't say anything until he calmed down. Except he didn't feel very close to calming down.

"I can't, I can't do this. You don't understand, I can't stand those Mozart sonatas, I can't deal with that formalism anymore, there's no passion, no…no sensuousness, not even a hint. If I have to play one more, I'll go psycho and smash that Steinway to pieces with a big fucking hammer. Seriously." He slumped down on the sofa, his legs sore after hours of tense practice and angry pacing.

Lydia took a seat next to him. "Alexandre, pull yourself together so we can talk."

"I don't want to talk, I want to die."

"Oh, the drama," she snorted. "Come here, lie down a bit and breathe." She scooted to the other end of the sofa and pulled Alex down to lay his head on her lap.

Running her hand through his hair, she sighed. "You signed a contract, and you're nineteen now, I can't do anything to get you out of this. So unless you want to fake an illness, you're going to have to do it. Just this once, and then you take a break from all this. You obviously need one."

"They could at least let me play Haydn."

"You can't play Haydn at the Mozart festival, Alexandre, stop being a baby. And I don't see how Haydn would be such a big improvement if your problem is classicism."

"Haydn is much less annoying."

"You can do it, Alex. Just this once. I'll take a week off and we can go on a little tour of southern Austria."

"Mother," he groaned. "You really want me to die of boredom."

"Northern Austria?"

Alex managed to laugh through a whine. "Nooo, I want to go to Romania and visit Castle Dracula."

"Oh, grow up."

Alex closed his eyes because lately it was so hard to think. There was a constant jumble of music in his head, a passage from this that turned into a passage from that, and he never seemed to be able to do what he'd always done so easily, which was just stare into the void and go over an entire concerto in his head, orchestral part included. Maybe his mother was right and it was just fatigue. He'd felt tired before, though, but he'd never had fantasies of committing violent acts against million-dollar instruments.

Of course he could do this, he just needed to take a deep breath and gather a bit of patience. He took her hand and forced a smile. "It's okay, you don't need to take a week off. Wait till your winter break and we'll go to a nice beach somewhere. You'd better bring Claudio, though, because I plan to leave you to get your tan and go after some hot Sicilian guys or something."

"Okay, good. You go to Salzburg – and take Claudio with you, for heaven's sake – and then we'll have Sicily in the summer."

"Yeah…" If he were honest, not even the idea of hot Sicilian men was much of a consolation. That recital was going to have to come from the bottom of his soul, and not in a good way.

"I know, but it's not just any competition, it's the Chopin competition."

Alex kept to his scales a while longer. Claudio could wait. This conversation shouldn't even be happening.

With a quick sideways glare, he finally deigned to reply. "I don't care if it's the Jesus Fucking Christ competition. I'm not going."

Claudio sat there with his legs crossed, pulled lightly on his earlobe, picked up an abandoned booklet of Scarlatti sonatas with a bored sigh. "You'd win, and you'd be in good company. Argerich, Pollini…"

Alex missed a note in an arpeggio and left it hanging, the piano prolonging the incompleteness under the pressed pedal. "I know who won."

"Aha. There you go."

God, sometimes he hated Claudio so much. He huffed and took his foot off the pedal, started playing a random passage from the Allegro Barbaro with the ugliest staccato he could manage. He saw the grimace on Claudio's face from the corner of his eye and took the barbaro to a whole new level.

"WILL YOU STOP THAT?"

He stopped. Getting on Claudio's nerves was usually more fun than this. His first instinct was to flounce off in a fit, but then Claudio would look at him from the doorway, narrow his eyes and say something like, 'You're too old to be such a baby and too young to be such a prima donna', and then Alex would have to glare and be a baby and a prima donna at the same time. It was a lose/lose situation.

"Claudio, listen to me," he said with a long-suffering sigh. Few things in life were more boring than being reasonable. "I know it's the Chopin competition, it's very important, blah, blah, blah. But it's for people who are on the verge of making it, and that's not my case, come on…And you never know with these things, I could lose and then it would just hurt my reputation. It doesn't make any sense for me to compete."

"Ok, you're right, you're right. I was just trying to come up with something a little different, that might motivate you."

"Claudio…I don't know what's happening to me. You have no idea how it felt to play in Salzburg. All I could hear were notes, none of it was connected, it was like being on auto-pilot."

"Alexandre, that happens to every performer – "

"No, no, you don't understand. It's everything, all the time. Even with Beethoven I can't feel anything. I'm just a pianola, I just keep churning out notes like a ghost or something. It's…it's Pythonesque, like…you know that cheese shop sketch? That's how I feel, like a musician uncontaminated by music."

"Oh, god," he laughed. "At least you're still in form with your analogies. That has to be a good sign, no?"

Alex didn't think it was a very good sign that all he wanted to do was sit on the sofa, watch Monty Python all day, and forget that music existed.

August, 1998

Years later, Alex would still remember that night. He'd still remember that he only went to that recital because the pianist had been a smart, friendly woman whose company had saved him from having a meltdown in Salzburg a few months earlier. She'd been the first person to put in words the feeling he had that touring could eat at your soul until there was nothing left.

And he'd remember how he felt when she started playing Beethoven's 32nd, his sacred cow, the only piece of music that put him in a state of such awe that he was afraid of touching it. He had touched it, though, in private, with the door locked and the curtains closed, for hours on end, from start to finish, then again, then again, but it always, always eluded him.

When she played it, it was all there, the wild first movement, that pounding left hand bringing out the giants he dreamt of when he was a child, and then the Arietta, a kind of beauty that he couldn't even wrap his head around. But the strangest thing was the feeling that that was not what he'd been playing, almost as if he couldn't match it with his memory of the time he spent locked in his studio. He'd lost the ability to listen to music, to listen to himself.

After that, it was an easy decision. He was a better composer than performer, he said, and that sent Claudio into a fit that lasted hours as he gesticulated like an Italian on speed. You're out of your mind, take a few months off, clear you head, you can't let a talent like that go to waste, I don't even recognise you.

But Alex had made up his mind. "Here's something you'll recognise: I want to be a conductor and boss musicians around until I terrify them into playing what I want to hear."

"Nobody will hand you an orchestra at this point."

Alex shoved the enrollment forms in Claudio's face. "Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, composition and conducting. That's what I'm going to do."

Lydia, who'd sat through that commotion in a state of bored resignation, finally spoke in a monotone. "Why here? There are so many better schools. Boston, Chicago, anywhere in Germany."

"No, I want to stay here, at home. I'm tired of being a foreigner. I'll try for some kind of fellowship later, I'm not worried about that. Right now I just need to stay home and listen." That was the word he'd been repeating, and that apparently made no sense to anyone, but he was so bewildered he couldn't come up with any other way of putting it.

And now, over ten years later, even Claudio had to concede it had been the right decision. Alex had made a name for himself as a composer almost as easily as he'd done as a pianist. And he'd become eloquent enough that he didn't have to terrify musicians into grasping concepts he'd always believed no one would understand. They actually liked him.

Both Lydia and Claudio dropped hints every now and then about how he could be both – surely he'd rediscover his love of playing, though it was definitely taking longer than they'd expected. Alex sometimes imagined himself back on a stage, a lonely Steinway waiting for him under a yellow spotlight. Maybe he'd feel ready for it eventually, maybe never. It didn't matter, because now he could listen again, he could take any piece of music apart and put it back together until he knew everything he wanted to say about it, he could communicate and relate and be understood.

He saw himself develop the ability to separate his position as an artist from his interactions in the real world, and that gave him hope that he'd someday understand what it felt like to be just another person going about their business.

He was happy.