Having conducted professional symphony orchestras for more than 20 years, attending many performances of Leonard Bernstein (notably at Tanglewood), and being a gay man, I was more than a little bit interested in director-writer Todd Field’s fictional portrait of a female conductor not guesting but helming the Berlin Philharmonic.
Let’s just say it: the actual music takes second stand to the less-than-riveting drama.
In an early-going masterclass for aspiring conductors Lydia (given a heroic performance by Cate Blanchett—still ready for some conducting lessons herself, but, “Hey, it’s a movie”), largely humiliates aspiring student Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) who quite rightly walks away in a humph. My teachers, including Karl Ančerl and Kazuyoshi Akiyama were much more tactful.The cantus firmus of the production is an upcoming performance, with the Berlin Philharmonic of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 by Tár, which provides the best recorded music of the offering and some dramatic glue that would make the Austrian composer also approve—no such thing as bad publicity.
But the side stories trump the musical ones.
Tár’s lover Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss deftly demonstrating a downbow when required) is the BPO’s concertmaster adding musical and political tensions to running, possibly, the world’s most democratic musical organization (they vote for the next music director).
In keeping with artistic democracy, an opening for a cellist is conducted “behind screen”, save and except for telltale heels on view as the candidate leaves (this doesn’t happen in real life). But before you can say “Elgar’s Cello Concerto” new recruit, Russian Olga Metkina (Sophie Krower readily convinces in her solo spots) wins the unnecessary audition (much to the consternation of current principal cellist) and a special place in Tar’s growing amour's heart.
But in the narrative weeds are the suicide of one of Tár’s hopefuls, and the—at first worshipping, then abonnement of “special” personal secretary Francesca (the ever-radiant Noémie Merlant), then Tár’s unilateral decision to dump her assistant conductor Sebastian (Allan Corduner never holding a baton in his hand).
As with Trump in the present day, there are soon more difficult questions than desire for real policy (read here understanding the truth of Mahler’s musical “policies”), leading to an onstage assault that can only be likened to what led up to January 6.
The real-life references (Jacqueline du Pré, Charles Dutoit, etc.) do as little as Tar’s quest to salvage a career that is beyond redemption, both musically and personally. JWR