Saturday, November 03, 2012

Lengthy Reflections on "A Late Quartet"

Now that the "A Late Quartet" is playing in a few major cities, I'll let free some observations that might be interesting to people who have seen the film (I wrote a "preview" review that had very few plot details a few weeks ago). If you haven't seen the film you might want to wait a while to read this post. I have read several reviews from its LA and New York showings, and have found very little written about details that make me STILL think about the film every day. Nobody seems, for example, to mention the props and the sets and they way they relate to the characters, so I will begin with those.

First, there are the households. Robert and Juliette Gelbart, the second violinist and violist of the quartet, clearly live on the upper west side of New York. Everything about their apartment not only screams "Upper West Side," but it screams of the Upper West Side I knew during the 1980s, and occasionally observed during the 1990s. My father used to call the Upper West Side "Piano Town," because that's where all the pianists he knew lived, but I learned (when I moved there) that it is populated by musicians of every stripe. The rents used to be rather cheap, the walls were thick (good for practicing), and it was easy to get where you needed to go to play or teach.

Their apartment is relatively small, and we see "Jules," as she is called, practicing in her bedroom. It's hard to imagine where Alex, their daughter, might have fit in that apartment, but when we learn that the Fugue was on tour for eight months out of the year, I imagine that the three Gelbarts didn't spend that much time together there.

The apartment of Daniel, the first violinist, has an area by a bay window where he makes bows. There are bow makers who play quartets, but I can't think of any quartet violinists with serious performing schedules who have the time to make bows. I suppose that his bow making shows that he doesn't have much of a life outside of music. He begins a bow around the time of the beginning of his relationship with Daniel and Juliette's daughter, and the relationship comes to an end after he presents a finished bow to her as a present. The making of the bow measures their relationship.

Daniel's apartment is austere, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and that bay window, which normally would give warmth to a living space, simply supplies light for his bow-making equipment. It could be anywhere in the city, anywhere where you could keep a car.

We see Daniel's car parked right outside Alex's apartment, which is probably in Brooklyn, because nobody could find that kind of "Doris Day Parking" in Manhattan. Everything about Alex is colorful and bright (and beautiful). She has a striped violin case and a really brightly colored apartment that she moves into after returning from what I imagine would have been four years at Curtis in Philadelphia (where the getting in isn't easy for anyone, and the tuition is free). Alex is presented as a serious violinist with aspirations to become a successful quartet musician herself, but she seems more serious about rebelling against her mother, who bears the brunt of everyone's "issues," in addition to coming to grips with her own life-long sense of loss. That's often the position of a violist in a quartet musically, and it's the position of many violists who are involved in musical life "à quatre."

The Fugue Quartet rehearses in Peter's house. It must be a house because it has two floors, and the whole downstairs seems to be panelled in wood. It's old-school (like him), and in nearly every frame taken in his house there is a framed picture of Miriam, his late wife. She died one year before the action of the film takes place, and her presence and absence in Peter's life is palpable. Peter, who is supposed to be in his later 70s or early 80s, seems to be surrounded by death. When he and Juliette (who love one another like father and daughter) go to the Frick together to look at Rembrandt self portraits, he sees them as living things that look at the people looking at them. Towards the end of the movie, we see him holding an LP cover and listening to a recording that the quartet made with his wife, who was a mezzo-soprano. He (and we) have a vision of her singing (it's Anne Sophie von Otter), and the piece she is singing is from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City).

It is tempting to think about the way the seven-movement structure of Beethoven's Opus 131 could correspond to the film's seven major characters. The members of the Fugue are the central four, and Alex, Miriam, and the Flamenco dancer all pull at the fibers that hold the ensemble together. Calling the ensemble "The Fugue Quartet" is a stroke of brilliance. (Quartets take their names from composers, cities, people, mythological characters, and musical expressions, but I can't think of another quartet that took its name from a musical construction). A fugue is, of course, made of four voices that are highly dependent on one another, echo one another's material in ways that good composers present in uncanny ways, struggle with one another (the stretto is a major component of most big fugues), chase one another around, and keep asserting their identity by stating the subject and countersubject in their different voices. Adding more voices to a fugue complicates things.

Beethoven's Opus 131 begins with a fugue. As far as I know, it is the first string quartet ever written that begins with a fugue. The first movement changes keys several times (also unusual), and when the fugue is over, both the meter and tempo change. We know that the second movement has started. The third movement is kind of an interlude (it accompanies the "interlude" between Robert and Pilar, the flamenco dancer), and the fourth movement develops and reverses the motive of the interlude. Director Yaron Zilberman uses the fourth movement as the background of the meeting between Juliette and Daniel on a bridge in Central Park, and bits and pieces from it (it is a very long movement with a lot of material and many changes in tempo and meter) punctuate other parts of the action. There are grand pauses between fragments towards the end of the fourth movement, and the fifth movement feels like a scherzo but behaves like a rondo. Then everything goes all ponticello, and all the members of the quartet start bowing on the bridge and making eerily ghostly sounds. The sixth movement acts like a slow introduction to the seventh movement, which seems to take many of the seemingly disparate themes and motives of the movements that preceded it, and present them with a sense of unity, as if byegons are byegons, and all is well, albeit in C sharp minor.

The last scene of the film happens during a concert. Robert has been living in a hotel room because Juliette kicked him out of the apartment. Robert reacted to Daniel's relationship with his daughter physically, and things are not good between them, but they still have the first concert of their new season to play and Opus 131 is on the program. Peter is really suffering from the early stages of Parkinson's, but has agreed to play anyway.

The Fugue Quartet plays the beginning of each movement (edited nicely), and we get the sense that in spite of all they have been through and how they may feel about one another, they can still do what they are there to do. After the beginning of the seventh movement, Peter suddenly stops playing. He stands up and tells the audience that everything is moving too quickly for him and that he cannot continue. Then he asks Nina Lee, the cellist of the Brentano Quartet to take his place. She walks on stage from the wings, cello in hand. Robert and Juliette have a brief, spontaneous, and tender reconciliation (perhaps it was the power of playing Beethoven together in concert), and Nina sits down to play.

Robert (the risk taker in the ensemble, who has threatened the unity of the quartet by suggesting that the two violinist take turns playing first violin) made it clear in the beginning of the movie that he has always wanted to perform Opus 131 from memory (a few quartets have done this, but it is not common quartet practice). After Daniel stands up to tell the audience that you can't "ride the horses" of the seventh movement without being prepared by the sixth movement, he spontaneously decides to close his music and play to the end of the piece from memory. Robert reacts by closing his music, and then Juliette closes her music. It looks like Nina might even have closed her music (she must have played the piece with them before). Since Nina is a real cellist, something kind of magical happens when she puts bow to string and plays. The non- (or novice) string player actors react physically to her physical presence on the instrument, and it made me laugh out loud, because they all became more physically engaged than they had in all their carefully-choreographed playing scenes from earlier in the movie.

There is one detail that I found quaint and rather of implausible. Robert and Juliette go to an auction to buy their daughter a violin. The instrument they are interested in is a Gagliano. Robert "plays" a single phrase of Ziegeunerweisen on the instrument, and decides it is good for his daughter. The bidding begins, and it ends with a guy in a business suit bidding $25,000 for it, and Robert and Juliette storming out after they were outbid. $25,000 for a Gagliano? Regardless of which Gagliano the instrument was made by, only in a fantasy world would it sell at auction for that little. $250,000 would be more like it!


Elaine Fine said...

I just learned that John Dalley, the former second violinist of the Guarneri Quartet makes his own bows (and uses them). [Thanks, Martha!]


Thanks so much for this, Elaine. I saw the film last night, and have been looking for reviews with more detail, so I was delighted to see you follow up from your first post (which put the film on my radar scree).

I enjoyed the film very much, which surprised me in some ways given that it has quite a few soap-opera type elements, and the writing/plot quality is uneven - and yet, like many regular operas, it works as a whole quite well. (Beethoven's music is pretty melodramatic, after all.)

We covered the first two movements of Op.131 in my Music History class a couple of weeks ago, and I'll admit I didn't spend that much class time on it, partly because studying just the first two movements alone doesn't do it a justice. (I supplemented the Burkholder anthology with the last movement of Op.111 and focused much more on that for "Late Beethoven" discussion. Pianist's bias!) I wish I could show this film to my class, because I agree that it could be a great entryway into the mysterious interior world of this music.

On some level, I find it kind of gratifying to have classical musicians at the center of a film that both takes their music and vocation very seriously, but that also isn't afraid to be a pretty normal, melodramatic film. I suppose when we have a "Two and Half Men"-style sitcom about classical musicians, we'll know we've arrived...

And, yes, the Gagliano price-tag was hysterical - I wanted to jump in on the bidding myself!


...oh, and as for John Dalley, he of course had time to make bows because he was just a second violinist.

Unknown said...

Hello Elaine
A L Q is on Netflix so I watched it and liked your review.I find it amazing the way film can make actor look like skilled musicians. The Cellists dead wife was singing Korngold's City of the Dead so beautiful and appropriate.

Unknown said...

Film magic incredible actors turned into incredible musicians. Rule number one put the instrument back in the case and snap it up before starting a fight.The cellist dead wide was singing Korngolds's"The dead city" and after went up on the roof todecide if he was going to join her!.