Reviewing a dozen films in five days is not without its challenges. Here at the Palm Springs International Film Festival we critics scurry around five venues several times a day, flash our media badge then hope for a decent seat from which to evaluate a truly fantastic array of features and documentaries. Over time, we’ve learned to arrive early—admission is not guaranteed. What if we never get to see the film that mere hours later we are slated to discuss in an interview with its director?
This year, I’ve vowed to take my place at least twenty minutes before the cheesy sponsors’ trailer signals the imminent start of the movie (the best of these 60 second wonders came in 2003 when the eagle’s cry was such a magnificent metaphor for freedom of expression). But how can a busy writer productively use those precious minutes?
In 2008, the answer comes in the form of J.K. Holman’s compendium of 107 Wagner Moments—either written just for this delightful volume or culled from those long dead (including George Bernard Shaw “grievously lack … human interest”, Georg Solti “I am not interested in Wagner’s political or philosophical ideas …” and Marcel Proust “Wagner never regarded Italian music with the severity of the Wagnerians.”) who were touched or moved by the Mesiterleitmotifer’s art.
Right off the bat it was especially wonderful to realize that I had shared some Wagner Moments with the contributors. Noted director Tim Albery reveals how Die Walküre was his personal key to The Ring Cycle—five years later that vision became the Canadian Opera Company’s swan song to the Hummingbird Centre. Die Walküre also fuels novelist Margaret Atwood’s moment who might well have been just rows away as we attended its first production in the newly opened Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Richard Bradshaw, the master of determination and vision—suddenly gone to his own Valhalla barely months after the triumphant Ring in his new hall—recounts a 1968 Sadler’s Wells performance of Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg as his special moment. Not surprisingly, Michael Levine’s entry encompasses the complete Ring Cycle—his own design work contributed enormously to the 2006 Toronto performances, a tour de force that occasionally rose above the music (cross-references below).
While most of the articles offer insight and information, a few (e.g., Frederica von Stade) seem to have made the list for publicity/promotional rather than artistic purposes. Curious too is that, aside from a mere mention in the introduction to Thomas Stewart’s moment, nothing more is said about Rafael Kubelik’s incredible gifts and understanding.
My response to Holman’s “Have you had one?” traces its origins back to my high school band (Laurentian High School, Ottawa). From the tender age of fifteen, my fingers were worked to the bone playing Lucien Cailliet’s fiendishly difficult Wagner transcriptions, notably the Overture to Tannhaüser where we were required to manage page after page of descending scales that were mere child’s play for accomplished violinists. From then on, Wagner had a place in my heart. Having thrilled to a spectacular and ever-so-blue production by the Canadian Opera Company of Der Fliegende Hollander in the good old days when the Opera of the National Arts Centre actually had opera, I couldn’t wait to attend a rehearsal/performance of Tristan und Isolde (courtesy of Sid Rosenberg—bassoonist extraordinaire) in Montréal. As a young conductor, I already knew that rehearsals could be better than performances and wanted to see how the world’s best went about their preparation. The talent assembled was considerable: the Montréal Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta; Jon Vickers and Maureen Forester in the cast.
Quietly seated in the rehearsal hall, I was surprised when the appointed hour of 10 a.m. came and went with no sign of Mehta. Most of the players worked on passages or read The Gazette. Vickers chatted with Forester and some of the musicians. Finally, at 10:45 Mehta took the podium and—without a word of explanation or apology—began to work. The numerous raised eyebrows were the only reaction. Then the music—especially being just a few feet from Vickers—carried us all into Wagner’s personal understanding of emotion and spirit. A few minutes later, the conductor stopped the proceedings and asked the world’s most revered heldentenor to sing the preceding passage differently. The room was still. Vickers pulled down his glasses, looked Mehta in the eye and—in his most understated but penetrating tone—replied “If you really want me to, I will.” Mehta wisely opted to move on to another section.
That moment taught me more about the art of rehearsal, professionalism and music than any complete Ring ever could. JWR