Chapter 1 - THE FLAUTIST
The sky was as blue as blue can be, and the early morning sun was warming commuters scurrying along The Groves to their place of work. The special day had arrived at last. The previous two days of testing and tuning the auditorium had gone well. The opening gala performance was now only hours away. Jimmy Caxton, the newly appointed caretaker, was standing by the river Dee a couple of hundred yards or so upstream from the new concert hall. Life was good, he thought, and a song thrush sang its agreement in a nearby tree. George Marshall soon appeared from the small house he had rented.
‘This couldn’t be better,’ said George looking skywards and then across the river. ‘The Dee looks so serene. All we need now is the music.’
The two men ambled along the riverside inhaling the fresh morning air. An almost imperceptible breeze wafted floral aromas from the carefully tended gardens to their right. To their left, a boatman was preparing one of the launches that provide the tourists with trips upstream round the great Earl’s Eye bend and along the straight rowing course right to the edge of the city. The usual suspects were out in force. Swans giving their best impression of serenity, glided alongside George and Jimmy, hopeful of some tidbits. Out in the centre of the river, some gulls were in a more agitated mood, apparently arguing about matters of avian importance. Chester was putting on its best show as if it knew that this was an historic day. As they neared the Queen’s Suspension Bridge, the two men paused to savour the view of their pride and joy. The new concert hall sat on higher ground looking down over the river as if it knew that it belonged. The architects had done an excellent job. The gala opening concert would confirm the hall’s arrival on the Chester scene.
‘Thank goodness the television people completed their setup last night,’ said George. ‘Thanks for working late on that, Jimmy. It leaves the hall free for the orchestra to rehearse with the soloist this afternoon. I don’t really need to be here this early, but somehow I just had to come and make sure it’s all ready.’
As they climbed the series of terraces up to the concert hall, Jimmy struggled with his new bunch of keys that clanged and clattered on a giant ring. The two men debated which key would open the stage door. They were so preoccupied that they failed to notice a small group gathering behind them. The key they needed was hiding and inevitably, it managed to be the last one on the ring that Jimmy tried. The door opened, making barely a sound. In an instant, the two men were swept aside as the small crowd barged in. Then more appeared, both male and female. Two of the men were wearing theatrical masks as if they had just left some Venetian ball. As Jimmy and George picked themselves up, an insistent rhythm of chanting began. Incongruously, it was about as unmusical as you could get and still call it chanting. By now, the main backstage corridor that ran right across the building behind the stage was full of this unruly choir. Being of a certain age, George thought they looked like sixties hippies. But they lacked the easy-going charm of the semi-drugged, flower power brigade. There was something more sinister and threatening about this crowd. Jimmy instinctively pressed the large round green button next to the stage door. The alarm leapt enthusiastically into action as if it had been waiting for this very moment. George covered both ears with his hands. A particularly scruffy man with a mask walked up to George and stood right in front of his face.
‘Pull down the concert hall,’ he shouted.
‘Why ever would we do that?’ demanded George quietly.
‘It’s a symbol of imperialist art created to repress working people,’ came the sneering retort. Unable to compete with the strident alarm, George sought refuge in the main orchestra changing room. More people were sitting on the floor in there. With a feeling of rising panic, he opened the conductor’s room, to find a solitary and rather threatening occupant. Another couple of mask wearers occupied the soloist’s room. George worked his way along the main backstage corridor, barging through increasing numbers of boisterous protestors. He pushed his way through the door into the front of house. By contrast, the foyer was spick and span standing ready and waiting to receive the evening’s audience. Suddenly, a blue light flashing in the mirrors behind the ticket office temporarily blinded him. Then he heard the sirens.
‘The alarm rings in the police station in town,’ gasped Jimmy, dashing to open the front doors. A line of police officers emerged, all pulling on caps and helmets, as they emerged from three vans. They marched through the foyer to the backstage door. Rather ominously the first three or four were wearing flack jackets over their uniforms.
‘I gather you’ve got a protest,’ wheezed Sergeant Denson bringing up the rear with a red face. ‘We ’alf expected this given all the protests on social media but we thought it was more likely to be this evening at the concert. We’ll take ‘em all through the back door where we have vans waiting to receive ‘em. It may take a while I’m afraid. They’re probably going to make us carry ‘em out.’
The members of the audience arriving for the evening performance saw only an orderly and ready concert hall. Despite this morning’s nonsense, the gala opening concert was already a huge success. Dr Laura Weeks, from the Deva University music department, had done all the introductions and announcements, Maestro Stransky had conducted in a suitably dynamic manner and the orchestra was absolutely on form. The first half performances were greeted withsuch persistent applause that several encores had been necessary. The full half an hour for the interval had been George Marshall’s idea. Judging by the crowds outside on the terraces with their drinks and snacks, this had proved popular. Even the Chester weather, not always as reliable as its citizens wished, had caught the mood and put on a perfectly balmy summer evening. The sound of the bell announcing the imminent continuation of the concert drifted right down to the riverside. The audience hastily finished their drinks and began to reassemble. The foyer gradually filled up as people arrived from the riverfront or from the site of the Roman Amphitheatre. A few more drifted in from Grosvenor Park.
The programme after the interval was going to be special and everyone was talking about it. George Marshall had pulled off a real coup by persuading one of Chester’s most famous celebrities to appear. Evinka Whyte was never going to be a regular here due to her international reputation and consequent global bookings. However, the attraction of opening the hall and the sales of broadcasting rights had apparently proved just enough temptation and she had suddenly found that her diary was clear. She had reduced her fee and promised to play one of the Mozart flute concertos as well as his concerto for flute and harp. She anticipated that these would be followed by encores and prepared a couple of dazzling solos. She had even agreed to sit in the foyer after the performance and sign copies of her best selling compact discs and biography. The steering committee could not believe their luck and unanimously passed a motion congratulating George Marshall. All the newspapers and magazines had sent critics. A television company was recording the concert for later transmission and several European countries had bought the rights. They would make a huge splash nationwide and even internationally. Everyone had worried that more protestors would spoil the evening, but the police had held them well back from thebuilding.
The house lights dimmed for the second half, leaving the orchestra as the focus of attention. Dr Laura Weeks climbed the five steps to the far right of the platform and stood motionless until the chatterers gradually caught the mood and fell quiet. She spoke in a loud clear voice.
‘Mozart composed three concertos for the flute. The third has a harp accompaniment and we shall hear it later. The first in G major K313 was written in 1778 while Mozart was in Mannheim. Here to perform it is Maestro Stransky with our new orchestra and special soloist. Despite her international life, she still lives here in Chester and therefore qualifies as one of our most famous Cestrians, Evinka Whyte.’ Laura returned down the steps to regain her seat at the end of the first row.
All was set for the star to appear. The door from the back of house area onto the stage slowly opened. It was only visible to the musicians in the back row of the orchestra. The third French horn looked over to his right and saw Maestro Itzhak Stransky standing in the open doorway. A stagehand behind him started to clap. The French horn took his cue and, soon, the applause began to ripple around the whole orchestra with the audience enthusiastically clapping their tribute to the conductor and soloist. Nothing happened. The French horns all looked over to see that, far from making his entrance, Maestro Stransky had disappeared. The horns stopped clapping. The rest of the orchestra gradually followed suit. The audience was more persistent but, eventually, they too fell silent. Still, there was no sign of Maestro Stransky and Evinka Whyte. Members of the orchestra began to ask each other what was happening. Chattering spread around the audience. The two bassoonists exchanged their plans for the late evening meal after the concert and a couple of second violins discussed itinerariesfor summer holidaysabroad.
At last, a figure appeared through the open door and the audience began to applaud again. But the members of the orchestra sat still and now silent. They recognised one of their ushers. He walked briskly onto the platform, weaving his way through the heart of the orchestra. He bent over to speak in the ear of the principal flute player. The applause died down for the second time. The flute player got up and, carrying his instrument, followed the usher across to the door. It opened as if by magic to let them through and shut behind them.
Murmuring had begun again at this mysterious event and this changed to hesitant applause when the usher reappeared with a music stand that he positioned next to the conductor’s rostrum. He performed an elaborate ironic bow to the applause and disappeared.
George Marshall took to the platform wearing a grim expression. His slow and deliberate tread took him to centre stage where he stood next to the music stand.
‘Lord Mayor, ladies and gentlemen. I am desperately sorry to have to inform you that Evinka Whyte is indisposed…’ His announcement was interrupted by a communal groan. ‘But the show must go on. Our principal flautist, Anders Hagen, has, of course, rehearsed the programme with the orchestra and he has kindly agreed to perform the same concertos for you.’ As George left the platform, the conductor and soloist emerged triggering applause that was polite rather than enthusiastic. There was little doubt that the audience was disappointed.
George Marshall, Jimmy Caxton and the orchestra ushers gathered in the main backstage corridor outside Evinka Whyte’s dressing room. The sounds of Mozart’s first flute concerto drifted in from the auditorium but not one member of this small group appeared to be listening. Eventually, the dressingroom dooropened slowly to reveal a paramedic.
‘Who is in charge here?’ demanded the medic rather abruptly.
George nodded and half raised his right arm.
‘I’m afraid that there is nothing that we can do for her,’ said the paramedic. ‘I’m no pathologist but I would say she has not been dead all that long, perhaps two hours, maybe less. Normally, we would have taken her to the hospital but it seems to us that this death may need investigation. I’ve just called the police. Of course, we will stay here until they arrive.’