A romance set amid the subculture of highbrow music and political upheaval in the late ’80s.
When Cooper Barrow arrives in Germany to study with monomaniacal conductor-instructor Karlheinz Ziegler, he’s content to be the clay that Ziegler will sculpt, and studying is his sole lust. Into this tranquil scene bursts a stunning German-defector oboist named Petra Vogel, whose prerehearsal “tuning note would soar across a quarter-acre of lacquered wood, ebony and brass, and land like the first duck on an evening pond.” Barrow and Vogel will have plenty of time to share thoughts on politics, conductors, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, but not before Ziegler magically anticipates the relationship and tests his student with a solo rehearsal of Brahms, for whom Barrow is not even close to ready. The tension begins to build as some tuning problem among the woodwinds creates a miscommunication between Ziegler and Barrow: Vogel is replaced as first oboe, and Barrow forgets that his only true friend is his ear. Ziegler tries to get between the lovers, but folks are dancing on the Berlin Wall and it will be only a matter of time before everything comes crashing down. Is Ziegler’s interest in Barrow simply musical? What of his old relationship with his friend and oboist in the camps? Or is there some secret between Petra and Ziegler, some political dread masquerading as romantic residue? The love triangle set against a world of international musical intrigue teases with its simplistic shell and language—but what’s to come is far more cacophonous and moving. By the close, what Barrow, the student, will learn, is something about his own failures, his teacher’s limitations, and the dark underbelly of a world from which music has been shielding him all along.
A pleasant but routine romance complicated by the struggle toward art and political dread.