by Michael Levin
In 1987 Levin published The Socratic Method, a very funny, trenchant send-up of lawyers and law school. This novel, set in the world of classical music, is not a worthy successor. Settling the Score centers on Donald Bright, a former child prodigy, who now serves as choral director for the New York Symphony Chorus. Bright is a brilliant musician, musicologist and conductor who has long dreamed of the day he would have his own orchestra. Regrettably, a sex scandal early in his career has effectively blocked the way. So has the panic that grips Donald on those rare occasions when he has been tapped to serve as a substitute conductor. Donald thought his luck might change when he unearthed a never-before-performed Mass in F by Mozart. Here, finally, would be his big chance with the baton. But no such big chance.
Instead, the world premiere of the piece is going to be under the stewardship of the good-looking, well-built Andrew Barnes, who attended music school with Donald. Andrew’s is the career Donald would like to have had. Thanks to Barnes’s pushy, ambitious wife, Elizabeth, and thanks also to Elizabeth’s wealthy, philanthropist father, the none-too-bright, none-too-talented Andrew has long been ensconced as principal conductor of London’s Royal Symphonic Society. Ironically, Andrew had never wanted a career in music; he had wanted to be a high school wrestling coach: “He knew that he often had trouble concentrating, sometimes even during performances. Once, he was leading a huge orchestra and chorus in the ‘Ode to Joy’ when he caught himself trying to recall how many shirts he had dropped off at the dry cleaner that morning and whether he had remembered to ask for extra starch. Conducting is a lot like sex, he decided: If your mind wanders, don’t tell anyone.”
With the premiere just a few days off, Donald clings to the hope that he may yet conduct the Mass. After all, Andrew, who had conducted four benefit concerts for a pro-Palestinian group in London, had raised the ire of a competing Palestinian group as well as a radical Jewish organization. Since then the maestro has received several death threats and is under police protection. While various groups plot to kill Andrew, women in the chorus and orchestra plot to sleep with him, and his wife plots to make him the biggest baton-wielder since Bernstein. The problem with the book is that it doesn’t go far enough out on its limb. The buffoons are not buffoonish enough, the plot turns not zany enough. Levin sets up endless comic possibilities but doesn’t exploit them. While not without its amusing moments, Settling the Score strikes no memorable chord. (Simon and Schuster, $17.95)