Classical music, despite its honored place among soundtracks, has not received accurate and realistic depictions of its musicians in movies, to my knowledge. I’ve seen the fussy, easily enraged conductor; temperamental musicians of all kinds from singers to symphony orchestra musicians. Pianists seem to have fared somewhat better. I remember a movie years ago with Richard Dreyfuss as a pianist at an intensely competitive piano competition, and although the romantic storyline was a bit unrealistic considering the setting, the scenes of the pianists practicing or competing were actually quite good.
Early last June, I worked viola auditions at Orchestra Hall for the Minnesota Orchestra. Auditions pressure cook the candidates’ nerves and any behavior I observed there I attributed to those nerves. One thing I found interesting, however, was how their warm-up/practice times varied. Some candidates walked into the practice room, shut the door and practiced until they were called. Others popped out of the rooms like champagne corks to ask questions, find something to drink, go for a walk, or pace. Few acted relaxed. When you reach the level where you’re auditioning for a major symphony orchestra, music has become a lifestyle and job, not something done on the weekends or when company comes to call. It’s hard work.
Keeping these two disparate thoughts in my mind (musicians as caricatures in movies, string players), I headed off to see the movie A Late Quartet. This art film, directed by Yaron Zilberman, follows the members of a professional string quartet, one that has been performing successfully (and lucratively) for 25 years. They are about to celebrate their 25th anniversary together. The year before, Peter Mitchell’s (Christopher Walken) wife, Miriam, died. He’s the quartet’s cellist and his wife was a professional singer. They had been close to the quartet’s other three members: first violinist Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir), second violinist Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and violist Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener). I’d forgotten until after the movie that Hoffman and Keener had played close friends the last time I saw them in a movie together in Capote, and here they’re playing a married couple. Their daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), is also a violinist being coached first by Peter then mentored by Daniel. An outsider, Pilar (Liraz Charhi), is a friend of Robert’s, and runs with him each morning.
Just how interesting could a string quartet be, anyway? Well, they’re people who play musical instruments and who perform — already you have competing egos right there. And indeed, Robert wants to play first violin — he proposes that he and Daniel switch places every once in a while. This is minor compared with the group learning that Peter has the early symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, and he’s losing control of his fingers and hands. His vulnerability brings out the vulnerabilities of the other characters plus exposes the vulnerabilities of the relationships and “the quartet” which is a character itself. Peter’s mortality, on top of losing Miriam, challenges their beliefs about their own mortality, sending each off on behavioral tangents they probably wouldn’t ordinarily do, threatening “the quartet.” The future of their quartet, called The Fugue (this is an exceptionally good name for a string quartet), is in jeopardy. Do they disband? Or do they invite a new cellist to join them? Should they go on with their 25th anniversary concert and perform Beethoven’s Op. 131 String Quartet from the score or from memory?
The Beethoven threads through this film both as soundtrack and as a touchstone for the characters. If you’ve never heard it, I highly recommend the movie for the way it deconstructs this piece and then puts it back together. For example, we learn that it was Beethoven’s favorite, that the composer Franz Schubert insisted on hearing it played as he was dying. We learn technical details of playing a string instrument, how to play in a string quartet, and how musicians feel about the music they play, as well as how to play this specific Beethoven. By the end, I wanted desperately to listen to this quartet from beginning to end; and in fact, I did as soon as I arrived home. I think people who are put off by classical music would be surprised at how accessible this Beethoven is.
A string quartet is the most intimate way to play music — a claim made by one of the characters in the movie. I had to think about this one. But then, I realized that it mimics the four human voices: soprano (violin), alto (violin), tenor (viola), and bass (cello). The string family is known for its singing quality of sound. And just as in vocal quartets, balance of dynamics and sound are important. What these characters forget is that balance in the dynamics of their relationships is just as important.
We don’t see Peter and the rest of the quartet discuss their decision about their 25th anniversary concert. Various suggestions had been floated throughout, but no discussion and no decision. So, it’s a surprise when suddenly we are back at the opening scene with the quartet coming onstage in a concert setting. They play the Beethoven and show us how everything has come together. I won’t reveal the ending — it is quite moving.
If you know nothing about classical music, it doesn’t matter to enjoy this movie and the lives of these characters. You’ll see how music affects their lives and how they live for music. You’ll also pick up some wonderful information about the Beethoven, about string players, about string quartets, and about the demands of a performing career. So, I highly recommend this movie for its accurate and realistic depictions of musicians…..