The Student Conductor

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In this daring first novel of political, sexual, and artistic awakening, a young symphony conductor travels to Germany in the autumn of 1989, where he falls in love with a recent East German defector, and has a brutal encounter with the prewar conductor who becomes his great life teacher.

Cooper Barrow has returned to the competitive fray of the orchestral world after eight years of exile-bringing his prodigious talent and insecurity into Frankfurt and Berlin just at the moment ...

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Overview

In this daring first novel of political, sexual, and artistic awakening, a young symphony conductor travels to Germany in the autumn of 1989, where he falls in love with a recent East German defector, and has a brutal encounter with the prewar conductor who becomes his great life teacher.

Cooper Barrow has returned to the competitive fray of the orchestral world after eight years of exile-bringing his prodigious talent and insecurity into Frankfurt and Berlin just at the moment that the Berlin Wall falls. Barrow is to study under the cruel hand of a capricious maestro, Karlheinz Ziegler-a man who carries boundless shame from his days in a Nazi concentration camp, and who will force Barrow to define himself within a morally ambiguous world.

But when Barrow encounters the beautiful and boldly sexual Petra Vogel, an oboist with poisonous secrets, he sets in motion a complex psychological dance of guilt, music, and love.

With remarkable intensity and physicality, Robert Ford delivers a pitch-perfect debut, brimming with intrigue and revelation, where passion flowers into desire on every page.

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Editorial Reviews

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Following a humiliating experience as a young symphony conductor in America, Cooper Barrow spent years accepting jobs beneath his capabilities but unlikely to cause further shame. Eight years later, he reenters the demanding world of orchestral conducting when he signs on as a student of the ruthless German master Karlheinz Ziegler.

In Germany, Barrow begins to navigate his own insecurities, the political and social intricacies resulting from the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, and the often brutal whims of Ziegler himself. But what really fascinates Barrow is Petra Vogel, a daring oboist with an aggressive sexuality who holds him spellbound. However, the damaged Petra comes by her adventurous spirit via a haunted past, and complicated relationships with Ziegler and the irascible concertmaster, Tano Popescu.

Like Petra, Ziegler has secrets of his own to protect, but his defense is of a more mercenary sort. Recognizing that his student's enormous talent is checked by a lack of confidence, Ziegler pummels this weakness in order to give Barrow's musical genius room to grow. Weaving an intricate psychological web of passion and desire, he forces Barrow to abandon the relative safety of his diffidence and helps him realize his dreams and the true measure of his talent. Music lovers, take note: Ford's first novel is pitch perfect, with a conclusion worthy of a Brahms symphony. (Fall 2003 Selection)

Publishers Weekly
A young American conductor goes to study in West Germany and is troubled by the country's unquiet past in this penetrating, intelligent first novel. Eight years after dropping out of Juilliard, 30-year-old Cooper Barrow makes a bid to restart his career, going to work with Karlheinz Ziegler, a legendary conductor from prewar days who now teaches at a provincial music school. A strongly antagonistic relationship develops between them, exacerbated by Barrow's continuing anxiety, Ziegler's brusquely authoritarian manner and the young American's romantic interest in Petra Vogel, a young oboist in the student orchestra, a refugee from East Germany. It is 1989, the time of the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the first stirrings of East German rebellion, and life at the music school is shadowed by old rivalries and resentments. Petra is an enigmatic creature, tormented by dark mysteries in her past, and Ziegler turns out to have his own wartime crosses to bear. The book skillfully captures the bewilderment someone from a simpler world feels at the layers of cynicism and corruption that enfold tormented Germany, and Barrow's alternating exultation at his own developing skills and frustration at his failure to communicate are convincing. The novel can seem overschematic, with each character carefully fitted into place rather than springing to spontaneous life. But Ford's precise, thoughtful writing recalls the rigorous harmonies of musical composition, and his insights into the rarefied world of classical music are rich and often piercingly poignant. (Sept.) Forecast: Ford, who holds a master of music degree from Yale, writes with rare depth and verisimilitude about music, musicians and student-teacher relationships, which makes his novel well suited to handselling, particularly in college bookstores. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This first novel from the Scottish-born Ford, winner of a James Michener Fellowship, portrays the competitive world of classical music against political intrigue in Germany at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Cooper Barrow is a young American conductor who travels to Germany on a fellowship to study with the aged Maestro Ziegler, an authority on Brahms. Ziegler sees in Cooper a reminder of his painful experience in a concentration camp, while Cooper falls in love with Petra Vogel, an oboist who recently defected from East Germany. Ford slowly reveals these three characters' pasts amid mounting sexual tensions between Cooper and Petra and stressful rehearsals for a televised concert (which Cooper will conduct). In a surprise ending, Pertra's and Ziegler's secrets are divulged. This is a fast-paced and rousing novel with a skillful blend of heartfelt characters and fascinating historical and musical events. Ford, who holds an M.A. in music, displays an astute understanding of the anxiety experienced by the conductor during a live performance; readers are taken right on stage. Highly recommended for all collections. [Ford works at the Fayetteville P.L., AR.-Ed.]-David A. Beron , Univ. of New Hampshire Lib., Durham Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 worldfrom which music has been shielding him all along. A pleasant but routine romance complicated by the struggle toward art and political dread.Agent: Amy Williams/ICM
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780399150371
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 9/25/2003
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.24 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 1.07 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Ford earned a Master of Music degree from Yale and an MFA in writing from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. An award-winning playwright, he has also been awarded a James Michener Fellowship, a James Fellowship from the Heekin Group Foundation for The Student Conductor, and has published fiction in American Short Fiction.

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Read an Excerpt

1

Barrow woke to the hard yank of an oncoming train and caught the whisper of the last orange car as it passed. Outside, the German sun flung itself in all directions, glanced from the rails, perfected clouds. It was the kind of day they polish steel for.

An elderly woman sat across from him in the compartment-gray hair, black raincoat, and striking blue eyes. "Pretty sun," he said in German. Schöne Sonne.

"Ja."

Her eyes did not leave the empty headrest to his left.

He tried giving himself over to the clip of passing utility poles, their near-rhyme. The intervals were not quite fixed, which only fed his anxiety.

He glanced back at the old woman. "One sees the Rhine on this trip?" he asked, still in German.

"Where are you going?"

"Karlsruhe."

"No."

She turned to stare out the window. He noticed the severity with which her hair had been clawed back into a bun, the particular gray of her skirt. She could be a nun. He considered her profile, pictured her as a little girl -- and older, at the age of her decision, her commitment or whatever they call it, standing before the altar at the head of a long line of other girls, her blue eyes angled down so as not to astonish the priest. He wandered between awake and stupid, the kind of stupid induced by trains. Farm fields chased by his window, some harvested and trailing smoke, fires running lengthwise in banked rows -- he'd read somewhere that ash was good for the soil.

Inches from his cheek, the safety glass was warm from the sun. When the conductor announced the Karlsruhe station, he was half asleep.

Another spark from the intercom -- Nächste Station Karlsruhe Hauptbahnhoff.

He was on his feet, pulling down bags. The nun's murmured "Good luck" surprised him, and he muttered something back. In the station he pondered food, but his stomach rejected the idea. He found a locker for the larger of his two bags, bought an English-language newspaper and a map, and worked out a walking route to the Karlsruhe Festplatz.

A wide boulevard called Ettlinger Strasse led to the heart of the city, and he strode its tree-lined sidewalk, working his calves to muscle out the excess adrenaline. Tram tracks split the broad avenue, and he sought distraction in the geometry of the electric lines slung overhead, the quiet shim of passing streetcars. The Festplatz came up. He checked his watch and walked for another three blocks, doubled back, and dropped to a bench by a circle of fountains surrounded by flowers bright as lemons. He surveyed the brick-paved acreage, followed the lazy progression of a two-baby family attired for a stroll through the city zoo.

It was his accursed gift to know that his heart rate was just over 116 beats per minute. He stared into the fountain and closed his eyes, thinking to lose himself in the steady smack of water on water the consolation of pure noise, But it didn't work.

It was too early, but he got up, adjusted his pack and headed for the massive limestone building that held down the far corner of the square. The Konzerthaus. Wrecked by war, and now, forty-something years later, back on its feet. A verandah of trees hid the rear quarter of the building, where Barrow had been assured over the phone -- a brief word with the people at the music school, the Badische Hochschule für Musik -- that he'd find a certain door unlocked. It was unusual, they had said, but the maestro liked to audition his pupils in the concert hall.

Inside, a guard directed him to a stage door across from the men's toilet, where he retreated, a place to limber up his arms in private. Glancing in the mirror, he regretted an earlier decision not to change out of his jeans. He'd meant to shave on the train -- another oversight. His face looked paler than usual, older than thirty -- brows too dark, cheek bones and forehead too prominent. Jet lag, he thought. He had a tie and he slipped it on, retucked his white oxford shirt. With wet fingers, he combed the hair out of his eyes.

The stage door opened into the left wing of a large stage set for full orchestra. His eyes went to the conductor's podium, its black safety rail shiny under the dim light. He gazed at it.

Get the fuck out, he thought. Walk away.

He checked the knot of his tie.

A couple of rolling lamps marked the edge of the stage. Burgundy seats, row upon row, disappeared toward the back of the hall in a weak fluorescent haze. The rear of the house was invisible. He approached the podium, knocking a couple of metal stands together with his backpack. The brittle retort bespoke the vastness of the place.

His forehead burned. There was a growing confusion between the outer recesses of the hall and the inner recesses of his own skull. Sound, stored above the catwalks, approached and receded. Leftovers from a thousand concerts -- a full-voiced Beethoven chord, the thin-clad opening of Mahler's First. He couldn't stifle the need to float his right hand forward, test the thick wedge of air between the soft flesh of his palm and the acoustically disciplined back wall of the stage.

From far up in the seats behind came a short volley of words, shot through with command.

"Nehmen Sie es!"

Take it.

He blushed and stepped up to the podium. A plank creaked under his left foot, some imperfectly cinched brace in the substructure.

"Kein Taktstock?" A perfect baritone from forty yards back, maybe fifty, straining against the traces of its upper range.

Barrow shrugged off his pack, bent to unzip the compartment that held his baton, his Taktstock -- get used to that word. When he straightened, the blood rushed his head and the stage took a swift turn before his eyes. He rooted himself to the podium, safety lamps flanking him on either side -- things to navigate by. The tip of his baton rested on the sloping desk in front of him.

Again, the voice, in German: "First symphony, fourth movement."

Beethoven's First -- it had to be. The coincidence struck him. His last time before an orchestra, it had also been Beethoven's First.

His wrists shook. The hall was a cavernous void, nothing but a place to breathe. He raised his arms, left palm up, stick delivered straight forward. Conjure orchestra --

"You're shaking!"

Thanks, he thought. He'd crossed an ocean for this.

His arms opened to embrace the solid trunk of the fourth movement's opening fortissimo, and with a simple flick of the wrist he indicated an upbeat, released the opening sonority. The thick chord sprang up in his head. Full orchestra. Tutti. He held it, widened the embrace just so much, swiftly cut it off.

"Halt, halt, halt! Wie gross ist das Orchester?"

He would not have thought to ask --

"How large is the orchestra?" the teacher demanded, in English this time.

"I understand," Barrow shouted back in German, noting the shrillness in his voice. "Modern orchestra. Eighteen firsts, sixteen seconds, viola twelve, cello -- "

"Aufstellung."

The English, the English --

"Aufstellung?!"

Arrangement.

"Traditional. Firsts here, seconds here, celli …" Barrow indicated the placement of violins to his left, celli to his right --

"Continue," yelled the teacher in German -- it would always be German, German from here on in.

The opening six bars consumed thirty minutes of harassment. The correct length of the eighth note, the gradations of soft, softer, softest; their precise indication with his hands. A good conductor would never rehearse a full orchestra this way, this stopping and starting; they would mutiny. He would call out suggestions, cajole in passing, return only later to pick up what was missing.

Barrow began the new tempo, the Allegro molto e vivace --

"Too loud, too loud!"

There's no fucking orchestra!

He fought the impulse to turn, face his accuser. He didn't have to. The teacher had advanced to the lip of the stage, and it was Barrow's first look at Maestro Karlheinz Ziegler. A slight stoop and a large head added to the impression of great height. His thinning white hair was overlong, rash and unkempt at the sides, perhaps studiously so.

"Bow the cello part for me, please," the old man said, his voice softer, "from bar twenty-three."

Barrow dragged his baton back and forth across his left forearm while Ziegler sang under his breath, eyes fixed on Barrow's hands. The old man's skin ran bright pink with agitation under the dim light. His blue-gray eyes never met the American's; set deep under a tall forehead, they danced between meanness and delight.

"Now a slow movement from one of the concerti, any slow movement." Barrow hesitated -- there had to be a correct choice. "You stop to think. Do not."

"Fourth piano concerto, second movement."

"Begin." Barrow looked for some response, a nod of approval on his selection. "Begin," the teacher said.

He imagined a piano to his left, a gaping concert grand, and a new set of eyes, the pianist's, twelve feet off. Ziegler was a background blur in the same direction. A long piano solo began the movement, and because it was not his job to conduct the soloist, he skipped ahead and started beating one full measure before the entrance of the orchestra. He nodded to "the pianist," beating lightly through the soloist's closing two measures, transferring the tempo to the players.

"What is that?"

"I am starting where -- "

"You would carve the Madonna without a head?"

"No, I -- "

"Start where Beethoven starts."

Barrow stood, head bowed. His eyes swept the empty stage, the assembled chairs, and settled on the pianist. He dropped his chin in what was meant to be a subtle nod, marking the start of the movement. He and Ziegler shared a minute and a third of silence, the same tune supposedly trailing through their heads. Barrow lifted his arms to ready the players, delivered a simple upbeat.

Ziegler broke in. "Who is your soloist, Liberace? Too shitting fast."

"I'm sorry."

"Pick someone else."

He picked himself.

Rochester, New York. Eleven years before -- 1978 -- and a certain all-night session alone in a practice room. He'd played the opening measures of the second movement on the piano again and again without thinking. A gross self-indulgence, but weren't these the saddest sixteen measures ever constructed? A desperate whisper for redemption, some teacher had said.

He made the mistake of meeting Ziegler's eyes.

"Where are you?"

"Pardon?"

"This is not church."

For two hours, Ziegler called out movements and sections of movements, observed Barrow from the house and from every part of the stage. He interrupted -- or did not -- there was no pattern. Correction or scrutiny, the effect was the same: to strip Barrow of what little certainty might be left after eight years away from the podium. Again and again, Ziegler asked him to make his own selection. Each time, Barrow scrambled for the least obvious choice: the first movement of Beethoven's Eighth, or the second of the Second. In the end, it didn't matter, because he'd begun to understand the old man's message, even as he watched its deliberate, sleight-of-hand insinuation. The most ancient spell of sorcerer over apprentice: How little you know, how much I can teach you.

A pair of musicians drifted in from the wings, possibly students. Barrow paid little notice. His clothes were soaked through with sweat, his soul borne up by a sense of possibility, because the more Ziegler drove him the luckier he knew he was. The other half of the old man's intended message: How lucky you are, how lucky that I should even spend the time.

There was a low "snap" off in the wing, and light flooded the stage.

Ziegler stood by the podium. "I will teach you," he said, and he slipped Barrow a small card with his address.

"Thank you," Barrow said.

"For the first month we meet every day."

"On the weekend?"

"Every day," the old man said. Barrow nodded, beating back elation. "This is to bring you up to minimum standard. Bare minimum."

"Yes, Maestro."

Minutes later he stood under the trees behind the Konzerthaus, allowing his eyes to adjust before wandering out into the direct sun. This, he thought, is what a ghost feels like his first day back.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2004

    Musical Complexity: Metaphor for Life's Experiences

    The Student Conductor is as complex as the Brahms' Second Symphony. There is much about conducting that the student, Cooper Barrow, knows, but is afraid to realize in performance. The story is a trip thorough his understanding of the symphony and the down and dirty world of professional conducting. It is also a metaphor for his struggles with understanding his own demons, and the demons of others who are still haunted by their past. Cooper Barrow's past seems benign when compared to the complex and mysterious histories of his teacher, Herr Ziegler, and the beautiful oboist Petra Vogel. The tight story can be read in one setting, but I found myself rereading, often outloud, passages that were masterfully crafted and joyfully fitted for the plot. However, the reader must be prepared for the ambigious ending. Just as the music of Brahms can often be ambigious and open to many interpretations and levels of understanding, so is the ending. I reread it several times with the end result that I was as confused as ever. It finally occurred to me that the ambiguity was perfect for the story; as in music, life has few endings that are nice and tidy. The naive American caught in a changing landscape of post-cold war Germany finds that his perspective about music, life, love, and the past is forever altered. If you know music, especially if you are a professional or student musician, you will find that much of the story accurately reflects the isolated agonies and joys of learning and performing music...and living life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2003

    Shattering, Beautiful, Musical.

    If this novel did not have a masterfully intricate plot, intriguingly human characters, and the liquid, powerful feel of absorbing a symphony in bed, I would read it for the language. The language is such that occasionally I was stopped in the middle of an established rhythm to find myself rereading a sentence, struck by how perfectly it expressed itself. My only warning to a potential reader would be to wait until you're willing to spend some time with it. With work piling up on both sides, I sat down for a break with this book and read it in its entirety within the span of an afternoon, evening, and night. Having finished, I wanted to sit down with the author - or any of his characters - over coffee. Well written, Mr. Ford.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2003

    A recommended book for music lovers

    The Student Conductor was an excellent book. It was written in an eloquent fashion, and it inspired me to look into music more often. As a writer myself, i can say that this is an well thought out book for a brand new author. The main character, Cooper Barrow, is everything i could ever imagine in a man. Someone who works with music and is a gentleman. In this story, i could see myself being Petra Vogel, the women he falls in love with. As i read this book, i began to imagine myself in it more and more. I know music lovers around the world will adore this book. Note: This book deals greatly with music. I recommend this book for people who are familiar with music, otherwise you might not fully understand the meaning and jist of the book. Also content is for Mature Teen to Adult.

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