“For the record: not all classical musicians want to cheat on their partners or spouses because the music compels us to.”
BY EMMA SCHMIEDECKE
A musical superstar, the performance of a lifetime, and a genius that can’t be contained. Every few years, a film is released about classical music and there are many overused and false stereotypes about the classical genre and its musicians that are utilized. The recently released Tár is far from the most egregious of these misdirected and uninformed dramas, instead, providing us with a more layered and nuanced interpretation of the classical world: part exposé, part top-drawer soap opera. The film provides many angles of analysis, but as a professional classical musician myself, I was most curious about how they would portray the musicians’ personalities and work habits. And whether they would use the same stereotypes so many other “accurate” films about classical music have relied upon to create a sensational piece of entertainment for the big screen.
The film stars Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár, widely regarded as one of the most famous and sought after musicians of our time who has recently been appointed the first female Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic. Right off the bat, the film attempts to legitimise itself by name-dropping as many classical institutions and notable figures as it can, showing the audience that the film has “done its homework” in finding out who and what really drives the classical music scene. Curtis and Juilliard for conservatories, the Big Five Orchestras of the United States, JoAnne Falletta and Marin Alsop for conductors, Jennifer Higdon and Caroline Shaw (interviewed for Issue 9 of smART Magazine) for composers. They’re all there in the first ten minutes of the film and, of course, Lydia Tár has had something to do with all of them. She is portrayed as knowledgeable but haughty, someone who really likes herself and thinks that everyone else should too. Whatever she says goes, and if anyone takes issue with that, they are dispensable. All in all, I think that Blanchett – who is known for her deep commitment to role preparation – did an accurate job in embodying the higher-than-thou persona one would assume of a classical music giant. Though in this era of performance, not many people in her position can get away with that anymore. Blanchett plays the piano herself, instead of relying on cutaways and hand doubles (upon investigation, I found that she studied piano well into her teens), and though she does not play the instrument much in the film, when she does it is indeed her playing. Her conducting, on the other hand, is not convincing – there’s a moment when she slices through the air with the baton as though it is an axe, and she lunges and thrashes around so much I was afraid she’d fall off the podium into the violas. I’ll cut her a little slack; it’s hard to expect someone who has not had musical training throughout their life to convincingly portray someone who has, but many conductors start their conducting education later in life, and it is much easier to teach someone the basic techniques of conducting than a musical instrument, so whomever prepared Blanchett should have stuck around for the shooting of the film to make sure that conducting accuracy made it into the final cut.
What I take issue with is the material Blanchett was given to work with, and the storyline at large. The same old stereotypes of classical musicians are there in every setting, from rehearsals to artist interviews, concerts to teaching—only this time dressed up in the costume of an art film. Tár has a commitment to women in classical music, having founded a conducting fellowship for female artists, and a big emphasis is put on the fact that she promotes music by women. This definitely reflects current real-world movements to include more women in the conversation of classical music, but instead of a celebration of female artistry, her actions come back to bite her. She is accused of grooming a former student into providing sexual favors in return for professional opportunities, but when that student ultimately commits suicide because of her entanglement with Tár in the midst of the conductor’s preparation for her debut with the Philharmonic, Tár is investigated and her true colors revealed. She reacts to the news of the student’s passing dismissively, saying that the student was disturbed and obsessed, telling her distraught assistant to “forget about her” because she was not “one of us”. This callous response only adds to the stereotype that musicians are so committed to the dramatic that we are immune to the tragedies of life and can go it alone without considering anyone else’s feelings or circumstances. We will abandon our friends and colleagues once we have gotten what we needed from them, and so we have no true friends or sincere professional relationships. Despite the relentless pace of a life in the performing arts, we in the music world are indeed friends with each other! Yes, we’re all solitary to some degree; it’s a byproduct of being alone for hours on end practising, but we find ways to work together to make the music happen and certainly care about what happens to those around us.
Another part of the story that really bothered me was the assumption that, in classical music, there is always an older, famous musician in power giving preference to a younger musician and expects favors, usually those of a sexual nature, in exchange for professional opportunities. They show nepotic favouritism towards the younger artist in question, giving them solo opportunities or finagling the system so that fortune goes their way. This trope is depicted in the relationship between Tár and a new cellist in the orchestra named Olga. Tár is immediately sexually attracted to Olga (much to the concern of Tár’s wife Sharon, also the concertmaster of the orchestra) and in hopes of romantic reciprocation and admiration, gives Olga the unearned opportunity to play Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto. This type of inappropriate conduct certainly happens in classical music, as was underscored by the #MeToo movement, along with the exposure of sexual abuse and harassment within the classical world. But, for the record: not all classical musicians want to cheat on their partners or spouses because the music compels us to. We admire each other’s playing and performance abilities, of course, but hearing a well-played phrase or beautifully executed melody does not launch us into throws of passion that make us want to abandon common sense and jeopardise long-standing relationships. Yes, this is a film and we want to see life’s triumphs and troubles taken to the extreme, but they could have easily found another way to add romantic intrigue to the plot.
Perhaps the most nefarious stereotype of classical musicians is that we have “fragile and precarious mental states.” While Tár is being investigated as part of the court case involving the aforementioned student suicide, her personal life unravels due to the budding relationship with Olga, and the pressure is mounting for the upcoming performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. The stereotype is that when the going gets tough, when things don’t go our way, classical musicians completely break down and we are incapable of being rational. This stereotype culminates in a scene during the aforementioned Mahler 5 performance that is completely outrageous, totally improbable, bordering on sociopathic and would have resulted in Tár being carted off to jail instead of just escorted off the stage. With the amount of rejection we face in the arts, sometimes on a daily basis, musicians are some of the most resilient people out there. We know how to take a hit and get back up again because we do it so regularly, and this important skill does not immediately vanish once someone has made it to the level Tár has. Her reaction kind of made me want to shake her by the shoulders, tell her to go talk to a professional, and focus on getting the job done as a true musician would have, regardless of what may be happening in her personal life.
This two-and-a-half-hour long film attempts to squish all the intricacies and eccentricities of a life in music into one storyline. I understand that the director, writer, and yes, Blanchett herself, were trying to give the viewer as complete a picture of this character and her situation as possible, but in a film about music, there is not a whole lot of meaningful discussion about the music at all. There is instead an attempt to make an edge-of-your-seat drama out of the small and, in this case, inaccurate details of how classical musicians supposedly live and work. Our lives are not psychological thrillers, far from it, unless one considers hard work, dedication, and intense study the precursors of a dramatic and sensational existence worthy of a movie. What this film tries to explain through the character of Lydia Tár is that classical musicians, by virtue of what we do and how we do it, can’t help but be overly dramatic, unreasonable, irresponsible, and bizarre. Inevitably, these unavoidable traits lead us to being knocked off our self-awarded pedestals - or, in this case, conducting podiums - into reality, and this couldn’t be further from the truth. Go ahead and rhapsodise on what it’s like to be a misunderstood genius in classical music, Lydia - I have a rehearsal to get to.