On the road to Asia with the Berlin Philharmonic (2005) seemed an ideal opportunity for director Thomas Grube to join the famed ensemble with an equally impressive camera, sound and editing ensemble to capture the seldom seen life behind-the-scenes of the proudly independent artists (rare in the worlds’ major orchestras, the players have the final say in both musician and conductor selection). To add extra drama (not really required given the program of Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, “Eroica” and Thomas Adès’ Asyla), the film starts with a set of “silent as a grave” auditions. Those who pass muster are given a year’s probation—including the 3-week tour. By journey’s end (and in the spirit of today’s ratings-leading reality shows), we’re left to wonder who will be voted off the island of spectacular sound (no spoilers here: the self-fulfilling prophesy of one of the “contestants” says it all).
The patrons at the tour’s first stop hadn’t heard the magnificent orchestra since Herbert von Karajan’s last trip in 1979. From the frequent mini-interviews with the players and conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, we learn of their “culture of playing” and how many shy musicians are “people [who] communicate with bodies” even as numerous cutaways to city streets and Jingshan Park show numerous images of those who may never have heard of the Berliners as they go about their daily lives.
The corporate climate of systemic chauvinism is unintentionally revealed (“If he fits, if he does not fit …”) and seems to preclude the notion that women are also vying for positions. “WE are the Berlin Philharmoniker” is worn like a badge. Meanwhile, in the rehearsal of Adès’ Asyla (which Rattle premièred in 1997 with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra), there is more than a little difficulty keeping the complex musical threads on track. “Together, here!” pleads the maestro where perhaps a silent gesture would be more effective. Later on, a percussionist allows how he “added two quarter notes” to make things work out. Small wonder Rattle confesses to early fears “… scared of my début [with BPO]—glad I waited, in my 30’s” and now “wakes up with more doubts every day.”
In this spectacular Chinese city we learn that “ego and determination” are the keys to success for professional musicians. Instructively, the camera follows a few of the players to the Conservatory of Music where some master classes are in progress. Notable is the BPO’s principal oboe mocking parody of a nervous young man who—nonetheless—has a centred tone worth nurturing. It’s most certainly a lesson he’ll never forget. The teacher gets the laugh, but at whose expense? At the sound check, the overall tone of the band—especially the lean, focussed strings—is up to its legendary standards, but the eighth-note accompaniments in the first movement of the “Eroica” are very untogether. Tellingly, when Rattle abandons the podium to listen to the balance in the hall, the music is none the worse: even on autopilot the quality is high.
At the midway point, tour fatigue begins to set in. One of the players bemoans, “Every wrong note you play is a death sentence.” The notion of the excruciating pressure of playing in a world-class ensemble is effectively juxtaposed by shots of civilian life with daily pressures of a different kind. Just in time comes the day off. From bike riding to butterfly collecting, the multi-national performers try to regain their sanity, energy and inner beings as they pursue other interests with equal passion.
“It’s not getting any easier,” “[you have to] master the task day in and day out,” “the kick is so incredible when it does work.” These comments deftly illustrate the loathing and allure of the siren call of the symphony to its practitioners. After years of isolation in the practice room and many disappointments before finally being “good enough,” the toll on relationships and psyches of the 128 members of a frequently dysfunctional, yet often sublime family is a fascinating study both on and off the stage. Grube’s innate understanding of these fragile, talented people lifts the film far beyond a mere travelogue filled with magnificent music.
In Taipei, Rattle and Co. are treated like rock star celebrities. Those fortunate enough to have seats inside the concert hall are showered with wave after wave of incredible emotion and beauty from the genius of Richard Strauss. And, yes, the music has to be “solved” every day as witness the almost perfect tympani strokes at climax—a slight deficiency shared by the podium and players. Outside, thousands of young fans watch the proceedings on a huge screen—one can only imagine what the sound was like. Were they there for the music or the spectacle? A follow-up documentary would be welcome on that subject.
Several older members reflect on the reality of life: “[It’s] my last great journey,” “In six months I will have to pack up my things and go.” With their retirements, two new spots will open, prompting hundreds of hopefuls to give their all and possibly join one of the planet’s finest music “reproduction” machines. Yet life is more than just magnificent art, beautifully executed—the flitting butterflies that scurry happily about the credits as the “Erocia” races to the double bar artfully make that point even after the curtain has fallen. JWR