Skip to main content

Summer/Fall 2020

The Burgermeister

Rachel Browning

Lyla couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen the bottom of her glass, yet here the server was again offering her more – what was the drink called? It reminded her of sangria. The main component was white wine, a Grüner Veltliner, probably. She declined the offer and stared at the kaleidoscope of berries, melons, and kiwis assembled in her glass, wondering what liqueur had been added to make the drink so potent. She recalled how the movie Amadeus depicted Mozart as some silly rake, drink perpetually in hand. If that narrative is accurate, she thought, then he probably was drunk when he composed his clarinet quintet, so her being in the same condition while performing it for Burgermeister Haas and all these guests she barely knew could be a tribute to the composer.

The dinner had begun over an hour ago, and they were only on the second course – a mélange of morels, turnips, and elderberry blossoms, according to the head waiter – but no one seemed concerned about the sluggish pace of the meal. She just hoped they’d have time to warm up before the concert and not be shuttled into the parlor at the Burgermeister’s sudden whim. 

Lyla didn’t know the Burgermeister personally, but she’d heard that, as Graz’s city leader, he occupied a seat on the Mozarteum Festival’s board of directors, and he’d designated himself the festival’s unofficial master of ceremonies. He possessed no musical abilities or training but liked to host professional musicians and teachers from the festival for the occasional soirée of food, drink, and “impromptu” performances at his palatial summer home just outside the city of Graz, tucked amid the verdant, rolling hills of the Styrian countryside.

Upon their arrival, Lyla and the other guests had been ushered past frescoed walls and beneath a domed ceiling of the grand foyer into a formal dining room. Soaring windows revealed the exterior grounds which featured a labyrinth of pathways and sculptured greenery surrounding a three-tiered fountain. Guests sat at banquet tables covered with pressed linen cloths and adorned with fresh flowers, an assortment of drinking glasses and matching place settings assigned to each seat. Begin with the utensil farthest from the plate and work your way in for each course, she'd reminded herself.

“I know you feel obligated, and perhaps Sophia’s voice could fit the high tessitura, but she is not your Queen,” Dr. Beraud, a vocal instructor, advised Maestro Gerhard, the festival’s opera conductor. Dr. Beraud was seated next to Lyla, the Maestro on his other side. Lyla had been half-listening to their discussion about the festival’s staging of The Magic Flute. When she heard Sophia’s name, however, she invested her full attention. She had discovered that eavesdropping was easy when you were the kind of person others didn’t notice.

“The Queen of the Night has to have rage, and Sophia doesn’t have it.” Dr. Beraud continued. “Does she even have the high F?”

“The hiring committee seemed impressed enough, but I haven’t actually heard her sing,” the Maestro said. “So, what am I supposed to tell Haas?”

They were talking about the Burgermeister’s daughter, a vocal student at the festival Lyla had been trying to avoid. Sophia hadn’t seen Lyla come into the dining room, and Lyla had allowed herself only one quick glance across the cavernous space – long enough to see Sophia engaged in conversation with a dark-haired, tuxedoed man, and to glimpse her self-effacing smile and imagine the sound of her laugh. When Sophia suddenly looked up suddenly, her diamond earrings blinking in the candlelight, Lyla dropped her eyes back to her plate.

Sophia had been the one to tell her about the festival and encourage her to audition for the orchestra. The offer letter had arrived via her landlady, who’d traipsed up four flights of stairs to Lyla’s Bronx apartment to hand-deliver it, admonishing her again to include the apartment number when giving out her address. Lyla had stared at the letter, then read it and reread it, making sure it had been sent to the right person:  Principal Clarinet, Mozarteum Institut, Graz, Austria.

She didn’t even have a passport.

Dr. Beraud continued talking with the Maestro at a volume too quiet for her to overhear, so Lyla sifted the remaining blossoms and morels on her plate as if arranging a Zen garden. She didn’t envy the Maestro’s predicament; she remembered Sophia’s comments about her father’s overbearing nature.

Lyla’s server rolled his eyes at her childishly rearranged salad as he scooped it up and replaced it with the main course – an elaborately assembled tower of sliced alpine beef and golden potatoes. She returned his sneer with a quick grin and a request for water, just as another server seized the opportunity to fill her last empty goblet with red wine. She wondered how anyone in Austria stayed hydrated.

“You have a beautiful tone, by the way.” Dr. Beraud said to Lyla unexpectedly. “Sorry, we haven’t been formally introduced. Edmund Beraud. I’m a vocal instructor at the festival.”

“Lyla McIntyre. Pleased to meet you.” She gathered from his accent that he too was an American, a New Yorker maybe, but she noticed that he ate his food the way the Austrians did, holding his fork in his left hand, his knife in the right, collecting and sculpting the various components from his plate and lifting them into his mouth with both utensils simultaneously.

“I heard you rehearsing the other day with what’s-her-name, the Russian mezzo,” he said.  “The Parto from La ClemenzaParto, parto, ma tu ben mio, meco ritorna in pace,” he sang in wobbly falsetto while sawing away at his beef. “I’ve always loved that aria. Incredible dialogue between the voice and clarinet. Have you worked with singers much?”

“Yes, I have …Well, only one other singer, actually, but…”

Guardami, e tutto oblio, e a vendicarti io volo. Look at me, and I will forget all and fly to avenge you,” he continued, victoriously punching the air with his knife. “Good stuff. All I’ll say to you is this: don’t hold back. She has a huge voice, that – what’s her name?”

“Irina.”

“Irina, right. Huge voice. You’ll be fine, though. Beautiful tone. I’m looking forward to your performance tonight.”

“Thank you,” Lyla replied, hoping she could go back to being invisible, relieved he hadn’t tried to test her knowledge of Italian or quizzed her about which recordings she’d consulted in preparation for the rehearsal. Too often, such benign conversations could devolve into another kind of audition, an assessment of one’s musical pedigree.

“So, Ms. Lyla, the Maestro tells me you just received your master’s degree from Juilliard – a scholarship student, correct?” The Burgermeister sidled up to the table and wedged a chair between Lyla and Dr. Beraud, literally inserting himself into the conversation. He smelled of cigars and musk and scotch. His wavy hair was chalk white, and tiny beads of sweat dotted the hairline of his ruddy face. “My daughter, Sophia, is working on her doctorate there,” he said. “But, of course, you’ve met my daughter, haven’t you?”

How did he know so much about her?

“Yes, we performed together last semester,” she said. “A concert of twentieth century American music. I was in the orchestra for the Barber. Samuel Barber. His Knoxville: Summer of 1915, for soprano and orchestra. Very impressive. Sophia, I mean.”

“Yes. I’m aware. She’s here, you know. Perhaps you can tell her that yourself.” The Burgermeister’s mouth crept into a broad grin as he turned to Dr. Beraud and the Maestro.

Lyla took a bite of potato and prayed there’d be no more questions. She remembered how Sophia had blown into their first rehearsal fifteen minutes late, apologizing as she threw off her coat and collected her music from a large Gucci tote. How she’d deftly swept her cascading auburn hair into a perfectly formed chignon and secured it with a pencil, signaling that she was ready to begin. How Lyla had nearly lost her place in the music when she heard Sophia sing the lilting opening phrase, the richness of her voice like plush velvet.

“So, is it true that Mozart wrote the ‘Queen of the Night’ aria because he hated sopranos?” The Burgermeister asked.

“Oh, quite the contrary; he wrote the part for his sister-in-law,” Dr. Beraud explained, his eyes blinking rapidly as if fueling his response. “He had the utmost respect for her vocal abilities, which, as a matter of historical record, were quite extraordinary. That’s why the Queen of the Night is such a beast of a part and why so few sopranos do it justice.” 

“Well is that so,” the Burgermeister smirked. “Achtung. We have a scholar amongst us.” He raised his glass as if to toast, then looked back at Dr. Beraud and took a long drink. 

“You know he was quite subversive writing it,” the Maestro offered, tearing off a large hunk of baguette and frantically mopping up the remaining sauce from his plate. “He and his librettist both were Masons. The entire singspiel overflows with Masonic imagery, and the Masons were not very popular back then, particularly within the Catholic Church.”

“And is that why he was poisoned?” the Burgermeister asked.

“No, no, that’s a myth. Mozart wasn’t poisoned,” Dr. Beraud said, eliciting an inadvertent snicker from Lyla – she was pretty sure even the Burgermeister knew Mozart hadn’t been poisoned. Dr. Beraud shot her a look of wounded incredulity, then barked at one of the servers for more wine.

“But, what about all those letters he wrote to his father?” the Burgermeister persisted.

“He was paranoid. Sick, broke, and paranoid,” the Maestro replied, his voice trailing off into his glass.  

“Ah, yes. A typical musician, I suppose.” The Burgermeister turned in his chair and winked at Lyla.

Lyla was no typical musician – she’d certainly never felt like one. Broke and paranoid, sure. But at Juilliard, where so many students had come from other countries, Lyla’s rural and migratory upbringing made her the true foreigner. Where is Odessa, Texas, exactly, various acquaintances would ask, their faces barely disguising their lack of interest in her response. Sophia was the only person Lyla had gotten to know in three semesters who’d asked more, who’d sought her companionship, her opinion, her approval, even.

They’d met initially during a break in their first rehearsal as Lyla was lifting her head from the hallway water fountain, mid swallow.

“Can you tell from where you’re sitting whether I’m projecting okay?” Sophia had asked, removing a piece of tissue from her bag, and dabbing at the water collecting on Lyla’s chin.

Lyla slid the tissue from Sophia’s fingers. “Thanks, I can get that,” she said, slightly alarmed by the gesture. Sophia’s accent eluded her. “From my seat? I don’t know. I think you sound great. I can hear everything. Though I’m probably not the best person to ask.”

“Okay. It’s just…Well, I noticed you were listening to me when you weren’t playing. That’s what it looked like, anyway. Most instrumentalists don’t do that, in my honestly limited experience. So, I thought you might have an opinion.” Sophia grabbed another tissue and swiped at her brow, then behind her ears and neck.

She’s nervous. “Oh, I’m sure the others are listening, too,” Lyla said. “They’re probably just trying to stay focused on their music. Besides, I bet when we move into the auditorium next week, you’ll get a much better idea of the sound…”

“Would you like to go for a coffee after rehearsal?” Sophia asked. She pulled the pencil from her hair, clamped it between her teeth, and ran her fingers through the long auburn locks before finessing them back into a bun and replacing the pencil. The pixie cut Lyla had been sporting for the last year was beginning to make her feel bald. A faint scent of lavender drifted between them as she tried to formulate a response to Sophia’s invitation.

“You mean today? After rehearsal? Sure. Why not? Nice of you to ask. I’d like that. That’d be nice.” Stop talking now.

“Great; I’ll come find you when we’re done.”

They’d gone out after the next two rehearsals as well. The following week, there were dinners at Sophia’s SoHo loft, then weekend evenings listening to music, talking, and sharing bottles of wine late into the night.

Lyla knew they were from vastly different worlds and assumed Sophia realized it as well. Sophia talked openly about her life and family in Europe:  her boarding school education in London; family vacations in Spain and the South of France; an ex-boyfriend who’d wanted her to be his fiancée indefinitely while he traveled across the Horn of Africa working with Médecins Sans Frontières; her father’s political aspirations. 

Regarding the details of her own life, however, Lyla remained circumspect, as honest as she knew how to be. It had been just her and her mother growing up. They’d moved around and often, traversing the parched terrain of West Texas, never spending more than two or three years in one town, while her father drove Humvees across other deserts in other countries as an Army contractor. Lyla had never worried about revealing any of it to those who happened to ask about her family. Why should it have been any different with Sophia?

After the Juilliard performance, it seemed only natural that they go out and celebrate. A cab took them downtown to a bar in SoHo that Sophia knew. They wound their way through the light Sunday night crowd gathered at the main bar and chose a candle-lit booth in the corner. Sophia immediately ordered them two shots each of Schnapps and a bottle of champagne. “This place serves the real Schnapps,” she explained. “Not just your American version.” 

After the waiter delivered the drinks, Sophia threw back the first shot without flinching, slapped the glass down onto the table, then tossed back the second. Lyla tried to replicate the sequence but could barely stifle a grimace when the sharp liquor passed her lips. Sophia laughed and motioned towards Lyla’s second shot. “Have at it,” Lyla said, pushing the glass across the table. Sophia flashed a wry grin, then down it went.

An hour later, they had worked their way through most of the champagne. Their conversation meandered, at times contemplative, at others, animated, interrupted periodically by an escalation in the hum of the crowd or the pulse of the music. Gradually, the bar emptied, and Lyla perceived a shift in Sophia’s expression. She watched from across the table, as the flame from the candle sketched random sprays of light and shadow across her face.

“A couple of other doctoral students came to talk to me tonight during intermission. They think I should audition to study at the Mozarteum this summer,” Sophia said.

“That’s great; you should. If nothing else, I’ll know one other person there,” Lyla said. “What’s wrong? You seem doubtful.”

“I don’t know how it would look – because of my father.”

“How it would look? Why? His board seat shouldn’t matter. Anyone who hears you sing will know you deserve to be there.”

“Always so confident, aren’t you?”

“Hardly. I just pretend to be, so people will leave me alone.”

Sophia started to laugh but paused. “I noticed you rarely speak of your family or anything about your life outside of school. I hope it’s not because I’m always talking about myself.”

Lyla felt a twinge, knowing they’d reached the point at which everything solid between them could vaporize. She shuffled through her mental index of suitable responses, flicking her thumbnails against her fingers, a lingering childhood habit.

Sophia continued. “It’s just that we’ve spent so much time together, and… Sorry, I’m too pushy, I know…”

“There’s not that much to say,” Lyla said. Her eyes darted between the four empty shot glasses clustered on the table and the fizzing champagne. “My father’s in…” Screw it. “Actually, I have no idea where my father is. Haven’t seen or heard from him since I was a kid. And I can’t reach my mom because her phone’s no longer in service, probably because she didn’t pay the bill, although I couldn’t say for sure. She might’ve gotten a new number and just not told me. Anything else you’d like to know?”

Lyla glanced at Sophia, then slugged the rest of her champagne. Sophia swiftly emptied the remainder of the bottle into the glass. Lyla looked away from the table at nothing in particular, ashamed of what an entirely innocent question could ignite in her. She swallowed and gritted her teeth. When Sophia finally uttered her name, Lyla looked up. Sophia’s eyes shone in the amber glow of the candle, communicating more than Lyla thought she could bear, but she couldn’t look away. When the waiter brought the bill, Sophia scooped it up and paid it herself. Neither spoke as they left the bar, the weight of the evening balancing between them.

Lyla was about to say goodbye before heading to the subway station for the next uptown train, but when Sophia caught the attention of a passing cab, she seized Lyla by the shoulders. Her mouth lightly brushed Lyla’s ear as she leaned in and whispered, “Come with me.”

Lyla followed Sophia into the cab, detecting her body’s modulation, its passage toward something mysterious and inescapable. She heard Sophia give the cab driver her address, saw the driver, without turning to acknowledge them, pause his phone conversation and resume it after noting the address and recording the initial fee.

When the cab lunged forward, Lyla leaned back in the seat and took Sophia’s hand. Sophia lifted it to her face and brushed it against her cheek. With her other hand, Sophia clasped the back of Lyla’s head and drew it towards hers. Lyla felt weightless as Sophia’s lips methodically traced her mouth, cheeks, ears, neck. Her mind a collision of desire, curiosity, and fear, Lyla pulled Sophia closer and kissed back urgently, longingly, while the cab driver, oblivious and chattering in a language she couldn’t decipher, swerved, and honked his way through lower Manhattan.

“Now, tell me, Ms. Lyla:  what made you decide to play the clarinet?” the Burgermeister asked. The servers were bringing the dessert but seemed confused by the Burgermeister’s presence at a different table and unsure of whether to bring an extra set of utensils. He ignored them and gestured to Lyla to respond.

“Well…My mother played when she was a young girl, and I discovered her instrument one day while we were cleaning out the attic. I was twelve.” The truth was that Lyla had found the instrument among other family possessions tossed to the curb after an eviction. The truth was that, when she announced she had chosen band as an elective in the sixth grade, her mother had told her that she didn’t have any other choice but the clarinet – she couldn’t afford another instrument and predicted Lyla would give it up within a few weeks anyway.

 “And what will you be playing this evening?” he asked.

“Mozart’s quintet for clarinet and strings.”

“Ah, wonderful. A monumental work, written very late in Mozart’s life, as I recall. You must know the piece, Maestro?” he said, inviting Maestro Gerhard back into the conversation.

“Of course. In fact, I attended a lecture years ago at the Royal College on Mozart’s chamber works, and the lecturer had the audacity to suggest that the development of the theme and variations was too fussy and mechanical – he actually used the word fussy. I wanted so badly to ask him to close his score at the point at which he thought this to be the case and rewrite the development himself. Honestly!” The Maestro shook his head and stabbed at the chocolate soufflé the server had just placed before him.  

“Yes, well, it is a shame he did not have the benefit of your distinct musical insights, Maestro. Anyway, Ms. Lyla. You picked up the clarinet at age twelve. You started practicing and never looked back. And now, years later, you have your baccalaureate from the University of Texas and a master’s from Juilliard.”

“Yes, that’s correct.” She wondered what other information he possessed about her.

“Lovely. It’s remarkable what one can do with one’s life when given the opportunity, isn’t it?”

“I feel very fortunate, yes.”

“You see, Maestro? It’s all about opportunity.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Haas, if you have something to say to me about Sophia, say it,” the Maestro exclaimed. The Burgermeister ignored him and kept his focus on Lyla.

She’d never meant for Sophia to get hurt; Lyla wanted to tell him. She’d merely acted on instinct, the same instinct she’d been driven by her entire life. The instinct that compelled her to say goodbye to her mother and board a bus in Lubbock that blistering August afternoon, her instruments strapped to her back and the rest of her life stuffed into a suitcase and her father’s army-issue sea bag, the only remaining evidence he’d ever existed. It was an instinct informed by experience that told her the only secure path forward was the one she would take alone.

So, when she woke up the morning after the concert entwined in Sophia’s sheets, her arm draped across Sophia’s naked back, Lyla did what her instinct told her. If she hurried, she could get to her place, shower, and make it back to school in time to begin her ten o’clock shift at the library. She’d missed too many hours already preparing for the concert, and she needed the money. They’d just been swept away by the intensity of the performance, the champagne, their emotions, something like that. No need to wake Sophia or leave a note. Better to retreat from the bed quietly, gather up her clothes, get dressed, and leave.

Lyla had tried to explain things later when Sophia showed up at her apartment, wanting to know if she was okay, why she’d left without a word. Wanting to come inside and talk – why couldn’t she come inside? Wanting Lyla to look at her – why wouldn’t she look at her? Lyla fumbled for a response. Her place was a mess, and she wasn’t prepared for visitors. She hadn’t meant to send any signals and didn’t know who she was, not exactly. She needed to focus on finishing her degree and taking auditions. They were from vastly different worlds. Nothing Lyla said sounded sincere, even to her – only hollow and evasive. 

When I’m with you, I am weightless; she’d wanted to say as Sophia headed back down the stairwell.

The servers had returned to remove the remaining plates and offer the guests refills of coffee and espresso. Certainly, there are other people with whom the Burgermeister could be engaging, Lyla thought, aware of his eyes bearing down on her.

“Ms. Lyla,” he said. “Sophia would love to perform the part of the Queen of the Night.” He leaned in, the alcohol wafting from his breath as he spoke. “Now. Is she ready? I can’t say,” he pressed, his inebriated voice intensifying. “But she’d like the opportunity. You know what that’s like, what this could do for her career. Don’t you? The Maestro has his opinion, I’m sure. But I’d like to know yours.”

Lyla tightened her grip on the sweating glass and felt the heat rising to her cheeks. What in her own life had been given to her and what had been earned? Did the answer even matter? She knew he saw right through her. Sophia had been on her mind ever since she’d arrived in Austria, the memories flooding her body in impenitent waves. Before responding to the Burgermeister, Lyla turned to Maestro Gerhard. “Sophia does have what it takes to sing the role, sir. For what that’s worth.” 

“With respect, Mr. Haas…Sir … I don’t think she’d want the part knowing you had pressured the Maestro into giving it to her. Or perhaps you could ask her yourself.” 

The room spun silently around her as she awaited his response. The Maestro cleared his throat and coughed into his napkin. Finally, the Burgermeister plunked his glass onto the table and looked at Lyla, then at the Maestro, and nodded his head. “Very well, then,” he said. “We shall retire to the parlor and hear what you all have to play for us.” He rose from his seat and threaded himself through the tables to the center of the dining room where he announced that the performance would start in thirty minutes. The servers continued clearing the tables while the guests resumed their conversations and strolled into the hallway to the parlor. 

Lyla pushed up from the table, smoothed out her black crepe dress, and scanned the room for the other members of her quintet. She saw the first violinist and cellist headed in her direction, but before she could get their attention, someone’s hand brushed the small of her back. Lyla closed her eyes and inhaled the anticipated lavender aroma.

“So, you met my father,” Sophia said.

Lyla turned and faced her. “Yes. He’s – I don’t know.”

“He just likes to have his fun. I did warn you.” Sophia laughed. That laugh.

“I don’t know. After what I did….”

“Lyla, you don’t…. You have the performance to get ready for.”

“Right.”

“See you then.”

Sophia turned and walked across the room; the echo of her footsteps stemming the current of distrust threatening to drown Lyla’s mind. It was only after Sophia reached the hallway and joined the other guests meandering towards the parlor that Lyla realized she was still holding her breath.

The parlor filled quickly as the guests arrived, arranged, and rearranged themselves, abuzz with muted anticipation. Some took seats in the large sofas and armchairs. Others assembled around the fireplace and at the small circular tables positioned about the perimeter. When the time came, Lyla stood, willed her trembling voice to resonate, and announced that the group would be performing Mozart’s quintet for clarinet and strings. After offering a few historical details about the piece, she returned to her seat, and the performance began.

Lyla placed the reed against her lips, inhaled and exhaled, and tried to escape, as she had so often before, into the music. She held the notes on the page tightly in focus, keying off the other players’ cues, leading when necessary, even as the effects of the alcohol blurred the lines into dizzying arrays of scattershot patterns and conjured images from the past:  her father’s withdrawal; her mother’s dazed farewell at the bus station; the years of self-consuming practice and her fear that it would never amount to anything; her relentless desire for Sophia that she could neither define nor contain. Somehow, all of it had brought her to this place. Music had raised her beyond her troubled past, yet she felt suspended, just beyond everyone’s reach.

Lyla channeled her anxiety - that restless search for a home, however she might define it – into her performance. The legato melodic lines flowed with greater intensity. The arpeggios sprang from her tongue in crisp succession, and she took more liberties, lingered a bit longer on certain notes and phrases through the cadenzas. The pain and fear that once threatened to weigh her down propelled her beyond the limits of her fingers, mouth, and breath. Release it all right here, on this stage, she urged herself, and there will be nothing left to prove to anyone.

 

 

[Check out Rachel Browning's back porch interview]