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Tuesday, September 07, 2010
Beethoven novices, step right up
By JOHN GRIFFIN, The GazetteSeptember 3, 2010
"I had no idea Montreal was a classical music town."
German director Christian Berger is still surprised at the turnout Tuesday for the first screening of his new music documentary The Beethoven Project. "Maybe 200 people turned up, stayed to the end and asked questions afterward."
Ah, the enduring power of the late, great Ludwig van. And the draw of knowing beforehand from the catalogue that the ringer in this fine film is Estonian-American conductor Paavo Jarvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen performing all nine symphonies in four short days at the Beethovenfest in Bonn.
First-time feature director Berger, his production house Deutsche Welle and the orchestra in question hooked up last year in a mutually beneficial relationship. The orchestra had just recorded new versions of the Beethoven cycle and were keen to have a visual document of the endeavour.
Berger was enthusiastic because "the orchestra is fantastic" and because the Estonia-born Jarvi is a classical star who, as luck would have it, is also charismatic, eloquent and candid beyond the boundaries of cultured political correctness.
"Normally, we would have had to pay the orchestra to shoot a documentary," Berger said yesterday. "It's a big hassle for them having cameras around all the time, capturing mistakes during rehearsals. And for a conductor like Jarvi, with four orchestras operating under his baton, and living on the road for 240 days of the year, I wouldn't want his schedule. But he said, 'Shoot anything you want.' He even took us to meet his parents in his old hometown of Tallinn. He asked only that we keep his own family out of it.
"So the question became - what am I going to do? There's nothing remotely unusual about an orchestra playing Beethoven. The success of this orchestra is in the interpretation, and pushing things to the limit. I'm not a trained musician. I don't read music and am not a classical expert. I realized I wanted to tailor it for people like me who are interested but not expert.
"I asked the question 'What does it mean to be part of an orchestra?' " The Beethoven Project answers it.
For those who had never heard of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (Griffin's hand goes up -they are an astonishing outfit that formed 30 years ago as a student orchestra, stayed together and rose to the top.) Remarkably, they continue as a cooperative - each player is a full member in the company, and responsible for its success or failure.
They still rehearse in a high school, in the northern German town of Bremen, and have achieved full bloom with Jarvi, a bit of an obsessive Puck at the podium, where he encourages players to take a fresh look at old traditions.
He analyzes elements of all nine symphonies during breaks in rehearsal, and brings a thoroughly individual style and mindset to the revered work of the master. Anyone with the slightest interest in Beethoven watches the film for this aspect alone.
But there's more.
At the risk of putting a few noses out of joint, Berger focuses on five players, gets inside their lives and careers, and seeks their perspective on playing. There are visually striking moments when Berger places them individually, in full dress, against a pure white background, a sharp contrast from the casual rehearsal format and the heat of actual concert performance.
"We shot in HD and put in a lot of effort to make it look good, and look different. I didn't want just another documentary.
"This is not a promo piece. There was just no way to make a negative film about a great orchestra and a fantastic conductor playing Beethoven."
As one might expect from such a fruitful collaboration, Sony Classical is releasing the DVD of The Beethoven Project with extra bells and whistles at the end of the year. Before that, there is a global Internet airing of the film, in four separate episodes on the site of Deutsche Welle, www.dw-world.de, the last four Saturdays of next month.
And there are two more festival screenings. The Beethoven Project screens at Quartier Latin tomorrow at 7:20 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.