Pianist Envy

Pianist Envy

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I come from a musical family. Both of my parents are professional orchestral players.

I started studying piano when I was five, and within weeks, I had surpassed the skills of my nine-year-old sister, who’d been playing for three years. I’d apparently won the lottery in the musical gene pool.

Growing up, I enjoyed being around musicians of all sorts. My personal heroes were Chopin and Liszt. As I entered puberty, I was drawn to girls who were musically inclined. My first crush was on a young mezzo-soprano I once accompanied at a recital. As a high-school sophomore, I lost my virginity to a senior girl who played oboe. (No “skin flute” jokes, please. I’ve heard them all.)

After high school, I was accepted at a prestigious conservatory in New England, surrounded by other prodigies. My camaraderie with other students was overshadowed by some intense competition. The one student who seemed more talented than me was a kid in the composition program. If you’re a fan of contemporary classical music, you’d possibly know him by his real name. So for this confession, he’ll be “Curtis.”

Curtis was the kind of kid who grew up hearing people whispering the word “genius” within his earshot, and so of course he assumes he is one. He’d written a prize-winning short opera before his second year at the conservatory and it received a couple of important productions. He was a big deal, and he didn’t let you forget it.

The two of us were tight, though the friendship was always tainted by our rivalry. I conceded that I was the beta male to his alpha. But I didn’t really care about that. It was fun being in the company of a star. Besides, we weren’t really competing in the same fields. He was a composer. I was a pianist. And when you’re a performer you soak up the adulation more directly than a composer would, immediately after you play that final chord.

We became each other’s wingman at the local watering holes where the conservatory’s dating scene played out. It was a fucking intense life. Musicians are passionate people — a cliché, but true. More accurately, musicians are horny fucks. When Curtis and I weren’t rehearsing or burning the midnight oil working on orchestrations, we were going through a revolving door with willing women. I dated some of Curtis’s castoffs. He took up with one or two of mine. All this attention was making us both insufferable.

One night when Curtis and I had gotten a little too drunk and high, we brought two first-year students back to his apartment — I’ll call them Jeanne and Jill. What a bacchanal that was! These women were both sexy as hell. Jeanne was a busty blonde; Jill was slight and dark. In the dimly lit apartment we fucked the two of them until nearly daybreak. It was a little weird for me — my first experience with group sex. Curtis loved it. He was a true exhibitionist. I remember at one point all four of us were together on his big bed. I was furiously screwing Jill’s tight pussy in doggie, while he was leaning back against the headboard, being fellated by the buxom Jeanne.

“Christ, Will,” he said. “Look how hard Jeanne has made my cock.” He pulled his circumcised meat out of her mouth and thrust it out for Jill and me to see. “I don’t think it’s ever been this big and stiff.”

I grew wary of Curtis that night. I felt he was literally measuring his dick against mine, reasserting his masculine superiority. We still hung out some after that, but the wingman thing tapered off. By the end of that semester, I was seriously dating a young woman named Leigh who wasn’t a music student. Curtis was still constantly on the prowl.

He finished at the conservatory a year before I did and went to California. We kept in touch but didn’t talk often. He had a song cycle performed in LA, and I thought about going out to hear it but couldn’t afford the trip. He now seemed like a distant acquaintance. But that changed last year, when I had a phone call from him.

Curtis had written a Christmas cantata. “I’d call the fucker an oratorio,” he said, “but they’ll think I’m trying to out-Handel Handel.”

A big, moneyed Episcopal church on the East Coast was premiering the piece, which was written for piano and voice. There were sections calling for a small choir, but the lead vocal role was for soprano. Curtis’s new girlfriend — we’ll call her Ada — would be singing the part.

“She’s spectacular, Will. You’ll fall in love with her.”

More prophetic words had never come out of his mouth.

Ada — originally from Houston — was big news in the music world. The two of them had moved in together soon after that. I’d seen Ada’s press photos — she looked gorgeous, if somewhat aloof. She was a blonde — slim and a little austere, but somehow crazy glamorous at the same time. Her eyes were smoky and mysterious. And her voice! When I heard the lieder album, I wanted to take her voice to bed with me.

Curtis wanted me as pianist for the Christmas gig.

“Only you can play this one, Will. You know my music. You know where it comes from. From my belly. From my groin.”

He was as full of himself as ever. From his groin? Seriously?

I agreed to the gig. But I felt trepidation. I could tell it was a brilliant creation. But it was also extremely difficult. Still, how could I say no? If I declined Curtis’s offer, I’d always wonder what might have been.

I fell hard for Ada the moment I met her. It was the weekend after Thanksgiving when I arrived in the city where the cantata would be presented. We’d agreed to meet in a coffee shop near the church where the piece would be performed.

Ada’s photos hadn’t captured her full beauty. Her skin was flawless. Her eyes were dark gray — nearly charcoal. Her smile had mystery in it. And her speaking voice was as smooth and crystalline as her singing — with only a slight twinge of Texan twang now and again. I’d reached to shake her hand, but she embraced me coolly. But considering that Curtis’s greeting had been an over-aggressive bear hug, Ada’s embrace seemed relatively welcoming.

“Curt has shared recordings of your playing,” she told me. “I cannot wait to hear you play his music.”

“And I can’t wait to hear you sing it.’

“It’s a phenomenal composition,” she smiled. “It’s also a motherfucker to sing.”

I hadn’t expected salty language from that honeyed mouth. But it immediately endeared her to me.

“It’s a motherfucker to play, too. Believe me.”

She laughed nervously. Curtis, meanwhile, glared at us.

“Their first conversation, and already they’re dissing the composer.”

“You’re going by ‘Curt’ now?” I asked. He’d always hated it when people shortened his given name.

“No. Only Ada gets away with that,” he said. “I put up with it during bedroom talk, but it spills over sometimes.”

There it was, a not-so-subtle reminder that he and Ada were fucking. He knew me well enough to know how I’d react to her. After all, he’d told me over the phone I would fall in love with her.

I’d noticed immediately that Curtis had changed. Physically, he was the same — though his hair had thinned a little. But he’d become more aggressive, almost combative.

The next day we met at the extravagant house where he and Ada were staying. It belonged to one of the Über-wealthy church families who were in Europe for the holidays. There was a grand piano there that we could use. I was being housed in the church basement, in a small but nice apartment usually reserved for visiting clergy.

The first rehearsal began well. The opening part of the cantata took its text from Isaiah: “For unto us a child is born,” Familiar, right? It was relatively easy to play, and my heart beat fast as I heard Ada sing live for the first time. Fucking angelic.

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