Last night, as an experiment, I went to hear Adam Bellman. Not to say hello (I don’t trust myself that far). Just to be at the concert. He’s classical music’s fetish-of-the-moment: the Swedish Phenom, the Nordic Liszt, etc. The Times called him “a virtuoso cartoonist, sketching masterful caricatures in sound”—an idiotic remark. Bellman is a profoundly wild genius.
I took my seat as the sold-out crowd dimmed into rows of shadow-profiles, perspiring discreetly in the dark. Close beside me, a lacquered nail scritched on the jellied plumpness of a matron’s neck. Two bodices away, a sequin glimmered. Across the aisle, an unobtrusive tug unstuck an underwear wrinkle from an ample male fanny—a satisfied half-wriggle ensued. The audience was ready, slightly drugged in a haze of Shalimar, Obsession, and residual exhalations of Absolut.
I won’t describe Bellman’s entrance. It didn’t move me. I inventoried my feelings and was relieved to find only passive interest, the kind you might expect of my fellow listeners. (Though, unlike them, I wasn’t wearing sequins or scent. Or underwear.) He played some vague mood pieces—by Liszt, according to the program. It could have been Bellman at the keyboard or someone else, I wouldn’t have known.
Somewhere in the second or third piece I noticed a wavery echo, barely loud enough to be distracting: someone seemed to be keening along with the piano. A puzzled sensation ran through the audience, but I couldn’t see people turning to shush anyone—just that mass of civilized animals with dots of reflected stage light for eyes.
And then, gradually, the sequences of notes flying through the hall began to strip away conscious thought. Snippets of unguarded moral and passionate states emerged around me like glistening wraiths, rising through the democratic atmosphere of cheap and costly scents. That’s how it felt, anyway: Bellman, taking hold. I pushed down in my seat a little, readjusted my skirt. My cheeks felt hot.
The keening echo had subsided; I wondered if I’d imagined it. I couldn’t see Bellman’s face, just a quarter-profile. Occasionally he indulged that little habit I now remembered—ducking his chin to one side as if cocking an ear at the keys—and when he did, I glimpsed his big round forehead and the distinctive nose, which, halfway down, swerves a little, as though an ox-kick had figured in his childhood. (Actually, it was a young aristocrat from Gotland who played soccer with calculated clumsiness.)
The elusive sound began again, parallel to the melody line, swelling to the sway of the big, square-cut pianist’s shoulders. Now I recognized it: Bellman, his voice. That tone. I felt the taut little drum-skins in my ears translating those vibrations into nerves and rushing blood. They dissolved and spread through me like a wall of water rolling shells and sea urchins and hats and huts and a starving dog into its crash.
I didn’t cry; that’s something. At least, I didn’t cry out. The experiment was on. The givens were as follows.
Ten years ago, on a morning streaked with sea-salt fog, Bellman walked into a grimly lit room at the San Francisco Conservatory. Seven students waited to be coached by him, in public, over the course of a weeklong master class. I waited, too, on assignment to write a newspaper profile of “Bellman and his world,” which my editor wanted to be full of Scandinavian color:
“What, beige and off-white?” I asked.
“C’mon, blondes, Bergman, I don’t care,” he said. “Just don’t give me the genius who practiced night and day and studied with some other genius the readers never heard of, with the quote about how the one genius they have heard of thinks this guy plays like he was touched by God.” His phone rang.
“Well, but he is a genius,” I remarked, glancing down at my notes.
He picked up the phone, but put his hand over it long enough to say: “Just get some emotion into it, personality-wise.”
“Bergman emotion? Angst-ridden sex?”
“Yeah, OK fine.” I think he said this to the phone.
“Ask Bellman about his sex life,” I told the doorframe as I went out. “That’ll be well received.”
Bellman’s local agent was a sassy operator I knew fairly well from previous celebrity profiles. I asked him for five appointments, one after each class. “He’s a tough interview,” the agent said with a rising inflection. “God forbid I should be negative, but I sat through dinner with him and that cretin from the Times, and my darling Bellman didn’t complete a sentence the entire meal. I was tearing my napkin with my teeth. He’s a genius; that doesn’t mean he can talk you through five interviews. Don’t you quote me!”
I remember a dim, pea-green room with, at one end, a concert grand on a low wooden dais: an obsidian shrine, illuminated by track lights hung from the ceiling. A padded leather club chair sat in anticipatory judgment beside the dais. Facing this, twelve rows of folding metal chairs containing ninety-seven reverential spectators and, in front, seven pallid students, of whom three were twisting shredded Kleenex between their fingers. Among the dry-palmed ones there was a young man with translucent skin and slick black hair who seemed to have frozen in his chair, stiff as a stone plinth—except for a knee jittering so violently that a sheaf of music poised on his thigh splayed into a fan and spilled onto the colorless carpet.
I was in the second row, sipping latte from a Styrofoam cup. I expected a morning of dry-toast piano, some student suffering I could write about in gently amusing terms, and, with luck, two or three Bellman quotes that would give my readers a hint at a man who routinely moved thousands of dim, dinner-digesting concertgoers to jump up and shout out loud.
A side door clicked and opened.
Bellman could have been a bulky, blue-eyed bricklayer hemmed into a Savile Row blazer. He crossed the carpet with a lightness and deliberation that drew my eyes to his feet, which were rather small, in soft black moccasins. He stopped, consulted a manila folder. My eyes lit on his wrist, where furry, dark-ginger curls peeked, clandestine, from under a blue-and-black herringbone cuff. He fingered a page delicately, then turned from the waist—his body motion easy, economical—and called the first student.
I assume he pronounced a name, but all I heard was a muscular vocal tone that blew a thrill of embarrassment into me, a surprise virus chill. I took a breath, confused, as if I’d lost a minute to a freak thunderstorm and now I was inhaling ozone on a high plateau. Bellman was shaking hands with the translucent-skinned young man, whose eyes watered hysterically. As the Swede immobilized himself in his royally situated chair, the student lifted stick-slender arms and attacked a Chopin scherzo as though it had tried to bite him in the groin.
At first Bellman was so perfectly passive he reminded me of a fairy tale I’d read to please my editor, about a troll who ambushed unwary travelers by sitting so still he appeared to be an oddly shaped stone. Bellman’s features were sweet and rude: broad, round cheeks dimpled with creases; smooth, high forehead framed by a receding crescent of copper-brown hair that emphasized the roundness of his face; sparse, severe little eyebrows, like charcoal pencil marks pointing to the slightly crooked nose.
As I took notes on all this, I shivered and felt the metabolic relief of coming down from a too-fast ride. The student stormed through his piece; Bellman’s small mouth pursed into a forceful pout, like an angry kiss. His eyes narrowed slightly. He put one hand to his chin and rubbed the thumb and forefinger back and forth along his jawline, stroking an absent beard. He looked like a man who needed to shave twice a day. My skin began to tingle a little, as though slightly carbonated.
A good interview is an exercise in time-lapse intimacy. The correct first question, deftly posed, can put you right there. I approached the master after that first class as he stood beside his chair, closing his manila folder with theatrical care, glancing at the brunette in the fuzzy magenta sweater with the reporter’s notebook in her hand who was stepping into his presence. I identified myself; Bellman shook my hand with polite sobriety. He didn’t release his warm, undemanding hold but drew me forward, his other hand unobtrusive behind my left shoulder, my upper arm, my elbow, as though leading me to a dance floor. Thus we glided out, around a corner and down the hall to a windowless office equipped with a desk, a piano, and one armchair. He placed me in the chair, then pulled the piano bench out to the side and sat on it, his knees splayed loosely outward, arms relaxed, big round hands clasped. A mock-retro desk lamp provided the only light. I fixed my attention on its oblong green glass shade and brass stem, which are the only colors I can now remember from that room. Bellman drew a deep breath and exhaled like an interested physician.
“What do you think of the students?” I bleated.
“Unexceptional.” He raised his eyebrows into startled arches and pursed his lips in that judgmental kiss. “Not all bad. Some with potential.” I nodded. His eyes, roaming the bookshelf beside me, refocused and rested on my own. A trace of humor passed through the ether: “Anything more?” he said.
If the first question doesn’t click, you have to engage a line of talk that gets gradually more personal and to the point. I tried three. First, assessments of each student’s good and bad points. This elicited a decent quip about the most crippling flaw of all: fear of Bellman, which he said gripped four of the seven students, and which he hoped would disappear before the week was out. One of them, in particular, was potentially “convincing”: a sleek young Asian woman in a white angora dress (one of the Kleenex-twisters) who had played with subtlety until Bellman, to highlight a rhythmic structure, placed his hand on her rabbit-soft shoulder and with two fingers tapped a delicate embellishment. A sensation had suffused her face, like a manifestation of my own feelings when he called the first student’s name. She easily picked up the embellishment he had demonstrated, but her subsequent notes came out watery and uncertain.
“It’s not good to be too impressed, even by me,” he said. “Art is ego. Has to be.” And he launched into an analysis of pedaling that would have been beyond a newspaper audience. It was beyond me. I tried a question about the notion of teaching artistry.
“Does not happen,” he said simply. “Technique, analysis, interpretation. That’s all.” He shrugged and glanced aside. The lines of his face had curved into a strangely sophisticated, scornful expression. I sat back, set my pen down and placed both hands over it.
“Is it such an idiotic question?” I said.
“You have a frightening sneer.”
“Good. You have a beautiful sweater.”
“I understand you have three daughters. Are they terrified of you?”
Thence to the personal, a conversation of twenty minutes about kinship and courtship, which ended in a parting handshake and the revelatory gravitation to a kiss, which folded into an embrace. He won his point, assured himself that more was available in that domain, disengaged first his lips and then his tongue, and leaned back to look down, frowning, at my face. I stared up at him, aroused, blank. A mischievous smile lifted his cheeks, apple-rosy and simple. “I am just appreciating you,” he said.
He accomplished my seduction in absentia: overnight, in the fantasy of shadows on my ceiling, cast by a streetlight and filtered through the ficus by my bedroom window. Or had it been during the kiss; or even before? Did it all originate with me? My inner elaborations, the confused vibrations generated in me by his blunt maleness, his confident subtlety, his fame, his hands? He touched me as though I were a familiar instrument; I felt myself fan into chords, clicking rhythms. I saw him—parts of him, his left shoulder or a hirsute, capable wrist, the challenging tease in his eyes—as I spilled a few coffee grounds the next morning, ate yogurt. An hour later, in my office, on the phone with an activist mom concerned about water quality, I staged a concurrent, imaginary, nonverbal exchange with Bellman.
The young Asian student wore a green silk jersey that day. She had put serpent-shaped silver barrettes in her hair, and she played with fearful but clear conviction. Bellman didn’t touch her, although he stood close over her, breathing, unspeaking, as if searching the sounds for something. She leaned toward him, playing. He straightened, shoulders back but swiveling his upper body toward her, and said abruptly, “Your tone is too small, and brittle. Needs to be—” He gestured with his big hands as though kneading soft dough in the air. Face upturned, hands halted on the keys, she nodded, following his movements with her body. Magnetized.
In the corridor, on the way to the windowless office: what did we say? Didn’t matter. Doesn’t. Why did we make love there, in a cramped room without even a couch? He had a hotel, we might have behaved normally, gone out for lunch, or to my apartment. No. He sat on the end of the piano bench, held me around the waist, pressed his thigh between my legs. I made some childish verbal protest—“But how can we?” His eyes were brilliant and determined. He said, “It will change nothing,” as though this were a phrase of absolution, before he kissed my arms, neck, mouth; my carefully denuded, lotioned legs, the hollow inside my hip bone. His lips protean, amoeba-soft, insistent, tender, violent.
I think we were finally on the rug, among our clothes. I’d never made love with such a large man. So old! I was surprised, intimidated, I had nothing to say. He moaned—tensile convulsion—that vocal tone, from the base of the throat. I retreated, scared by the wild frost-stenciled designs running through me. And suddenly the wave had moved beyond me, was rushing the shore while I treaded water a little way out.
So it didn’t quite work. For me. He lay still for just a moment, then eased his body from mine, his big chest damp with sweat, white skin freckled as by reddish sand. He sat up, examined my face, winked, and dressed quickly to duck out of the room for a wash, down the hall. When he returned (I had pulled on my clothes, slowly, and sat in the armchair) he crossed lightly before me, took the bench, rubbed his hands together briskly. He said with impersonal geniality, “And what are today’s questions?”
Did he make love to the Asian student, with her shimmery black hair in its razor-straight cut? It swayed when she played, shone like cellophane. When he showed her how to achieve a more powerful tone he incorporated her shoulders in the dialogue, created a Balinese dance of arms as he lifted hers with his. “Like the wave,” he said, moving his body and hers together, almost lunging toward the keys, onto which all four of their hands fell in a mush of notes that rang like spilled music. “Yes?” he asked, turning his face down to hers, holding the position until she nodded (I saw only the back of her glistening head). Then he stepped aside, still holding her hands, smiled, let go, withdrew to his chair, and nodded profoundly for her to play again. Boldly. Big.
When I entered his office that afternoon he made no reference to what had happened the day before. He didn’t kiss me, didn’t touch me, simply followed me into the room. Sat comfortably and answered questions. When I asked about the Asian student, he made a little shrug that raised acid jealousy in my mouth, and said: “I explained to her how she would produce the tone.” (Of course he’d “explained” nothing. He’d transmitted to her the ability to do what he wanted, but he hadn’t explained it. He never explained anything.)
He made no acknowledgment of any connection between us. My metabolism was still skewed, overexcited, asking. He was relentlessly cheerful, polite, flirtatious; looked discreetly at his watch a couple of times, let the interview run out of steam. I couldn’t so much as step close to him when I got up to leave. I went home horrified; cried, threw my notebook at the bed.
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