Comment: Why ‘Tár’ is not good for classical music

Director Todd Field has gone to great lengths, including in a podcast for The Times, to explain his great effort to get the classical music world right in Tár.

A lot of knowing chatter, gossip and the goings-on in the orchestra are intended to underline the realism of the film. Cunning references abound, as in a conductor in the film, Andris Davis, who is named after real-life Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director Andris Nelsons and the venerated late British conductor Colin Davis.

There have been many imaginative feature films set in the milieu of the classical music world, with many actors including Rex Harrison and Yul Brynner as charismatic star conductors. However, they are charismatic film actors who just do their thing. On the other hand, Cate Blanchett in her role as Lydia Tár tries to show what it really takes to conduct an orchestra, let alone what kind of woman it could be and how it feels to be music director of the Berlin Philharmonic will. the most coveted job in the profession. Blanchett doesn’t just wave his hands around like everyone else. she leads.

And now, after garnering rave reviews and sparking conversation along with a few controversies, “Tár” is racking up numerous accolades and nominations, including six for the Academy Awards. Who in the classical music hype wouldn’t want an Oscar nominee to draw attention to classical music? Maybe more of us than you might think.

Some musicians and critics have begun to comment on “Tár”. Marin Alsop, a glass-ceiling-busting conductor who studied under Leonard Bernstein, who founded an institution to encourage young women conductors and is raising a child with her wife, was the partial inspiration for Tár; Alsop took offense at the film. A handful of music critics have pointed out something that “Tár” does wrong. Nevertheless, a feature film must be granted the necessary fictional licenses. The hard work and dedication of orchestral life is far less glamorous and far more boring in real life. Sort of like making a movie.

But even taking all of that into account, the truth remains that beneath its facade of authenticity, “Tár” happens to be a vicious horror film with a classical music industry chip the size of the Hollywood Bowl on its shoulder. It’s more like fake news than fiction.

We have been there before. Do you remember “Shine”? The biopic about an Australian pianist with schizoaffective disorder caused a momentary sensation with Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. Nominated for Best Picture in 1996, “Shine” earned Geoffrey Rush a Best Actor Oscar and led to pianist David Helfgott’s ill-fated recording of “Rach 3” becoming a bestseller. But Rachmaninoff survived.

This is how Mahler will survive. Some excerpts from his Fifth Symphony, said to have been conducted by Blanchett (she studied conducting to prepare for the role), are unreasonably distorted on the audio track. The actual conducting obviously lies with the music editors. Each instrument sounds individually miked, and the balances done in the editing room are meant to underscore a sense of massive selfishness. The volume is extreme. The soundstage is massive. No concert hall sounds like that. The result is that the orchestra stands for a grotesque display of power, as if it were a calculating film score, perhaps intended to reflect Tár’s own controlling and out-of-control character.

The idea of ​​making a horror film about orchestral life has a certain spooky charm. Ominous soundtracks can make or break a picture, and no more than in horror. Think of the often brilliantly atonal scores of 1950s horror films, or Martin Scorsese’s delightfully underhand use of avant-garde classics in Shutter Island.

Field manages to do this in its application of barely perceptible, atmospheric original music by Hildur Guðnadóttir. It subliminally prepares you for the shock of hearing an orchestra blasting Mahler. The problem is that we don’t know it’s a horror movie until the end. Little did I realize that the distorted Mahler we hear is supposedly going on in Tár’s head as the world collapses around her. The soundtrack, according to its mixer, aims to reinforce Tár’s psychological dislike or misphony for noise – hardly a believable trait for one of the world’s most celebrated conductors.

“Tár” is not about classical music. Field has said that he made her a conductor because it is the study of a sexual predator whom he sees as an almighty music god imposing her will over 100 extraordinary musicians. Placing the story in the culture of the symphony orchestra is exotic, and therefore intriguing, to the general film audience.

But the classical world presented to us in “Tár” is full of tired, outdated clichés. The players of the Berliner Philharmoniker choose their music director themselves, and there would be no one who would talk to them like freshmen at the conservatory. Shouldn’t we in LA be offended by a Hollywood film that unknowingly references the “Big Five” of American orchestras while omitting the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the largest by any relevant measure? The film begins with New York writer Adam Gopnik interviewing Tár at a New York Talk, and when he addresses the so-called Big Five, one wonders if he reads his own magazine.

All that supposed insider talk about legendary conductors and the rest sounds awkwardly like some of us used to carry on as nerdy, pretentious freshmen. “Tár” presents Antonia Brico as an exceptional, groundbreaking conductor. Brico struggled with gender discrimination in her day, and although she conducted top orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic in the 1930s, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1930, her much-heralded return to the Bowl 45 years later did not go well .

Blanchett doesn’t help either, not when there are musicians of the extraordinary caliber of Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla and Susanna Malkki. But the most important thing is the music. As Rex Harrison twirls around the podium in the luscious 1948 Preston Sturges classic “Unfaithfully Yours,” you’ll hear wonderful results from a pre-recorded studio orchestra, expertly conducted. Even Yul Brynner in the goofy 1960 film Once More, With Feeling! is oddly believable due to the expert studio orchestra soundtrack. The music makes the conductor.

These comedies poked fun at the classical music world of the time, parodying its over-the-top glamour, but with a layer of warmth. Brynner’s manager — a character based on impresario Sol Hurok (who, according to Isaac Stern, speaks five languages ​​and all badly) — is the butt of jokes, but lovable nonetheless.

“Tár” is ice cold. At one rehearsal, Tár smugly compared trying to direct the players to being on the podium and “trying to sell a car with no engine at half past three.” One possible translation is that she’s stuck in meaningless silence, a callback to John Cage’s silent piece “4’33,” and even then the players are so miserable they can’t produce juice. I heard Simon Rattle rehearse as General Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic. That’s not how it works. He urged. You’ve delivered great time.

When the film bases a character on a real person, it becomes downright contemptuous. A major contributor to Tár’s conducting program is a reptilian would-be conductor named Eliot Kaplan, who looks like Gilbert Kaplan in the early 1960s. Gil Kaplan was a Wall Street financier whose passion for Mahler’s Second Symphony overwhelmed him. After making a bundle, he went out of business and hired top conductors with whom he obsessively studied the symphony until he could conduct it halfway.

He did that with orchestras all over the world, always without a fee and mostly as a fundraiser for the players. I never reviewed him because he was an amateur. But I knew him and liked him. Whenever Gil came into town, he wanted to meet up and talk and talk and talk about Mahler. He couldn’t get enough. He set up a foundation and supported Mahler projects. He has certainly annoyed some conductors. But he was a kind man who died seven years ago and who cared deeply about music and people.

Much attention was paid to the discovery of Sophie Kauer, who plays the young cellist Olga, to whom Tár is socially attracted. We hear her play a bit of Elgar’s Cello Concerto and she’s impressive. But Kauer is set to channel Jacqueline du Pré, who was a legend of another generation. While “Tár” makes considerable efforts to be contemporary – Tár works around Berlin in a Porsche Taycan, dresses with fashion sense and lives in a sleek apartment – he does so in everything but music.

What “Tár” gets right feels wrong, and what gets wrong is just wrong. It just doesn’t work without a high level of music. That’s what $35 million, the film’s budget, buys to create the Berlin of “Tár”. Coincidentally, the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, the magically captivating space Frank Gehry designed for Daniel Barenboim’s inclusive West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, cost just over 35 million euros.

At one point in the film, Tár is woken up by her clock radio. It is tuned to the classic transmitter. She listens for a moment and realizes that this is a performance by Michael Tilson Thomas, conducting which she likens to “screaming like a porn star.”

That’s the last straw. Tilson Thomas’ recent LA Phil performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at the Walt Disney Concert Hall was one of the greatest and least self-serving Mahler performances of all time. It was the life-or-death making music of a beloved conductor who announced well over a year before the film’s release that he had a life-threatening brain tumor. While Tár’s tasteless remark was intended to show us more about her than MTT (and there’s no way of knowing what was intended in a movie that delights in puzzles), it illustrates the film’s petty tone.

Tár’s music advisor, John Mauceri, served as Bernstein’s assistant and is the founding conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, which he conducted from 1990 to 2006. Field said reading Mauceri’s For the Love of Music: A Conductor’s Guide to the Art of Listening proved an inspiration. Field has also spoken repeatedly of his own love of music, and no more so than to Mahler’s Fifth. But somewhere along the making of Tár, love lingered on the cutting room floor. Comment: Why ‘Tár’ is not good for classical music

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