Notes on film: Classical music on the big screen

(Entertainment One Films US and Opening Night Productions/ ) - Christopher Walken as Peter Mitchell in “A Late Quartet.”

(Entertainment One Films US and Opening Night Productions/ ) - Christopher Walken as Peter Mitchell in “A Late Quartet.”

Time was when a feature film about classical music was an excuse to get a lot of great musical stars on-screen. The renowned ­pianist and sometime statesman Ignace Jan Paderewski played in 1937’s “Moonlight Sonata”; in 1947, “Carnegie Hall” presented cameos by such legendary artists as Jascha Heifetz, Artur Rubinstein, Ezio Pinza and others, linked by a flimsy tissue of a story. Rags to riches, boy meets girl, what did it matter; the key thing was that there was a climactic scene on the concert stage, and plenty of music.

Today, classical music has a whole different place in our cultural awareness. You could ask whether it has a place at all, but there’s evidence that it does, to some degree, in the form of two new feature films about classical music that came out this season within a few weeks of each other, both with some serious star power. In November, we got “A Late Quartet”, by Yaron Zilberman, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken as the second violinist and cellist, respectively, of a renowned string quartet. And this Sunday, in limited release, there’s plain old “Quartet,” starring Maggie Smith as a retired opera singer — and marking the directing debut of another Hoffman, Dustin.

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In the 1940s, classical music stood for glamour and larger-than-life excitement. In 2012, it appears to stand for, well, the 1940s. Both of these films subscribe to the idea of classical music as High Art, a signifier of the great and enduring; they are also both about aging, loss, nostalgia, and the pain of loving art when you are no longer able to make it well. The salient difference between the two is that one movie poses as a true-to-life story about today’s classical music world, and one is a sweet and wistful parable. Guess which one works better.

Hands off, it’s High Art

The problem with “A Late Quartet” is that this cluelessness appears to have extended to the director, Zilberman, who also co-wrote the screenplay. A pet peeve of mine is the way that many otherwise intelligent people turn off their critical faculties when it comes to classical music, accepting boring, turgid writing or patently silly statements in program notes, reviews and lectures as if classical music were so rarefied one couldn’t judge it according to normal standards of “good” and “crappy.” “A Late Quartet’s” screenplay demonstrates this suspension of common sense, and the fine actors labor to bring credibility to situations that would never have made it off the drawing board had the film been about any other subject.

Certainly film is often heavy-handed in portraying real life professions (let’s start with journalism); but in this case, the minor errors and tone-deaf character interactions gradually accumulate into a mass large enough to distort the big picture.

Are we supposed to believe that the first violinist in the quartet (Mark Ivanir) has never heard his colleague’s daughter play the violin? Can we imagine the second violinist blurting out that from now on, he wants to play first violin sometimes? When the cellist announces his retirement, would he also announce his successor, rather than leaving it to his colleagues to decide? And would he then go off to persuade another violinist (Wallace Shawn, beautifully cast as a gregarious, Isaac Stern-like figure) to release this successor from his own trio? These simply aren’t credible character interactions — particularly the latter one. Classical music is paternalistic, but it isn’t entirely feudal.

Everyone involved in this film is working hard — too hard — to convey the greatness of classical music. The actors even learned to play their instruments for the movie (though the soundtrack, focusing mainly on Beethoven’s Quartet in C-sharp Minor, was overdubbed by the Brentano Quartet). As a result, the camera shows people working very hard and slightly awkwardly to produce tones, rather than the easy fluid mastery you’d see from a quartet of this caliber.

Hoffman produces some stirring moments in a nearly impossible assignment — his character is built out of half-understood cliches — and Walken is powerful as the group’s elder statesman, facing his own mortality and mourning the death of his singer wife (played by the mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter). But by the time Walken stands up in the middle of his final concert, between movements of the Beethoven, and tells the audience he can’t go on, and brings on his replacement, the film has departed so far from reality you may not even think to protest.

Embracing, not glorifying

“Quartet,” by contrast, represents the intersection of two subgenres: Terrence McNally meets Masterpiece Theater, with an overlay of “Golden Girls” in its wry and loving attitude toward old age. It’s based on a stage play by Ronald Harwood (“The Dresser,” “The Pianist”), and it’s set in an ever-so-lovely old manor house that, the film has it, was left in trust by the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham for retired musicians. (Giuseppe Verdi really did found such an institution in Milan at the end of the 19th century, and it’s still going strong.) The musicians are preparing for their annual gala, hoping to raise some money so the institution can keep going (one of the oldest plots in the book), but also reconnecting, however tenuously, to the thing that for many years formed the center of their lives.

All this sounds rather dreadful when you tell it: a Hallmark setup filled with Old Dears. That the film managed, at least for me, to pick its way through terrain studded with land mines of sentiment without serious mishap, and come out with a touching little story is tribute to Dustin Hoffman’s directing — the film wasn’t conceived as a hymn to Great Art as much as to the people who make it. Furthering this vision is an endearing cast of actual retired journeyman mu­sicians and actors, who are ­celebrated here with respect — including the soprano Dame ­Gwyneth Jones as an elderly leading lady who offers a wavery but emphatic performance of “Vissi d’arte” from “Tosca.”

It helps that the film is not trying to be too literal: We are in a place that doesn’t really exist, speaking the language of BBC fairy tale. The plot might also run aground if it weren’t set in England, which had its own particular opera scene in the 1950s and ’60s, so that you can imagine four singers who made a beloved and popular “Rigoletto” recording would end up in the same retirement home. (Perhaps they made the recording in English, which would explain why some of the actors — Tom Courtenay as the tenor Reginald, and Michael Gambon in Dumbledore-like robes as the flamboyant director Cedric — keep mangling the Italian lyrics of famous arias.) And it also helps that you have the dignity of Maggie Smith, and the larger-than-life rakishness of Billy Connolly, who in another context might seem overdone but is quite credible playing a retired opera singer coming on to every woman in sight.

Another of the film’s strengths is that it manages to maintain a loving but realistic perspective on art: embracing it but not glorifying it. In one scene, Reginald gives a talk to a group of high-schoolers: Opera, he says, used to be for ordinary people, and it’s about real emotions that everyone has, except that they’re sung, not spoken. He compares it to rap, and one of the kids replies by rapping an answer. Like much of this agreeable movie, this scene sounds toe-curlingly awful and cliched when you describe it, but managed, through sensitive and decidedly un-Hollywood handling, to be rather lovely, instead.

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