Music of ‘Tár’: Cate Blanchett mastered classical conducting

Cate Blanchett has played her share of impressive characters, rulers who could bring mortals to their knees with a single icy glare: Queen Elizabeth I in “Elizabeth”, Galadriel in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the goddess Hela in “Thor : Ragnarok.”

But none of this compared to the surge of power – and terror – the actress felt when she first stood on the set of her new film, Tár, holding a baton in front of the Dresden Philharmonic.

“Nothing is going to prepare you for that moment when you’re on the podium, which was terrifying, and you give the downbeat and start making that sound with an orchestra of this size,” says Blanchett, who plays Lydia Tár, a brilliant, but deeply flawed classical conductor in writer-director Todd Field’s psychodrama. “I will never forget this moment.”

Following a flurry of ecstatic reviews and enthusiastic receptions at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals, “Tár” is now playing in select theaters and is expanding throughout the month. “Tár” traces the steep fall of a conductor who has reached the pinnacle of success in her refined field. As the first woman to lead the legendary Berlin Philharmonic, Tár reigns over her empire with imperious mastery, only to see her carefully composed life unraveled after a personal scandal surrounding her abuse of power is revealed. Alternately chilling and searing, the film unfolds as both a tragic character study and a #MeToo-inspired thriller with great symphonic panache.

“This movie isn’t really about classical music, it’s not about conducting — it’s about power,” said Field, who is directing for the first time since 2006’s Little Children. “Music is just the world we found this character in.”

However, music is the source of Tár’s power and the air she breathes, and it was crucial for Field and Blanchett to faithfully capture the passion and artistry of their musical life.

“We’ve all seen movies about industries, the movie industry is one of those places where we’re like, ‘Well, that’s cute, but it’s not really like that,'” says Field, who consulted with conductor John Mauceri on developing it Script to ensure the smallest details were correct. “My fear was doing some sort of toy town version of that milieu and having people in the industry say, ‘Bull, that’s not what it is.'”

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Nina Hoss and Cate Blanchett in Tar.

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The film’s narrative is built around two canonical classical works – Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Elgar’s Cello Concerto – interwoven with a haunting score by Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. Field’s insistence on absolute authenticity meant that all of the film’s music, which features German actress Nina Hoss as Tár’s violinist and concertmaster, was performed live on camera. In preparation for her role, Blanchett not only learned to conduct, but also to speak German and play the piano.

“I learned piano as a girl, but that was a long time ago now,” says Blanchett, who has already been a veritable ban on an Oscar nomination. (An Oscar win would be her third after The Aviator and Blue Jasmine.) “With every subsequent pregnancy, I kept saying, ‘I have to go pick it up.’ But since I’m terribly lazy, I don’t learn a new skill until the job requires it.”

In the scenes in which Tár directs rehearsals for an upcoming performance of Mahler’s Fifth, Blanchett and Field aim to be as accurate as possible.

“I didn’t want to be up there doing any trick,” says Blanchett. “I wanted to be able to look at the score and relate to the exact note and dynamic marking. I didn’t want to have to fake it because these musicians don’t fake it. That would have been deeply lazy. But also, where is the joy in it? If I never had that experience again, I wanted to try and get as close to the thing as possible.”

Field is aware that the prospect of being immersed in the world of classical music for two and a half hours could be an intimidating prospect for many viewers, who might occasionally become lost in the film’s references to esoteric musical terminology and past conductors such as Wilhelm Furtwangler. The film opens with a long, dialogue-heavy scene in which Tár is interviewed onstage by New York writer Adam Gopnik and throws the audience in at the deep end with a crash course in the art of conducting.

“You’re dealing with a part of our so-called high culture that’s designed to be intimidating,” says Field, who was a budding jazz musician before turning to acting and then directing. “When you hear a beautiful piece of classical music on the radio, why do you have to stop and write 6.93 squared to understand it? In the same way, the class system was designed so you wouldn’t understand how to score tennis so the lower classes wouldn’t play it.

Mahler’s Fifth was always a touchstone for Field. “The Five really was like my gateway drug into many areas of classical music,” he says. “I became obsessed with it and bought every recording I could find.” When he was working on the script, Mahler’s epic, emotionally stirring symphony, which opens with a funeral march, seemed the perfect musical accompaniment to the tale of Tár’s downfall.

“The first movement of The Five is about death, and Lydia goes through a kind of artistic death, a personal death, and a potential rebirth,” says Field. “It’s almost like it’s following them and getting them.” In composing the symphony, Mahler was also inspired by his love for his future wife Alma Schindler, who was 19 years his junior, reflecting an infatuation Tár develops for a much younger Russian cello prodigy named Olga.

Casting the role of Olga proved to be one of the greatest challenges for Field, who was determined to find an interpreter who could perform and play Elgar’s emotionally stirring Cello Concerto at a virtuoso level. After combing through hundreds of auditions from around the world, Field says, “It felt like it was going to be tragic.”

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Cate Blanchett in the movie Tar.

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Just as Field was beginning to lose hope, a homemade audition tape came out of the blue from a 19-year-old British cellist named Sophie Kauer, who proved to be both a highly skilled musician and a born actress. “I said to her, ‘Where did you get that Russian accent from?'” says Field. “She said, ‘Oh, a video on YouTube.'”

In composing the film’s music, Guðnadóttir – who in 2020 became the first woman in two decades to win the Original Music Oscar for her work on 2019’s “Joker” – sought to capture the joys and struggles of making music itself.

“My job was to connect to the process of making music, rehearsing music, practicing music — the kind of psychological and emotional aspect of that whole process,” says Guðnadóttir, who also wrote a piece of music that Tár composes in the film. “It was interesting to find out how to handle these very subtle threads of inner music and connect them to the characters in this subtle way.”

In conjunction with the film, Deutsche Grammophon is releasing a concept album on which Blanchett conducts rehearsals for the Mahler Symphony, Guðnadóttir teaches the score to the London Contemporary Orchestra and Kauer performs the Elgar Concerto in her professional debut.

In the end, Blanchett says, for all the technical preparation she expended to play Tár, it was ultimately the music that brought the character to life.

“There’s nothing I like better than being able to do without words and explain something with a sound,” says Blanchett. “One of the defining moments for me in drama school was playing Electra [in Sophocles’ play] and breaking down sadness into vowels, feeling which vowels resonate in different parts of your body. Todd’s script influenced me on a rhythmic level as well as on an intellectual level. My way in led through the music.” Music of ‘Tár’: Cate Blanchett mastered classical conducting

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