Tuesday, November 06, 2012

"A Late Quartet": Can musicians control their egos to play the Beethoven Op 131 one last time?

A Late Quartet” (as the name of a film) refers specifically to Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet #14 in C# Minor, Op. 131.  I actually had mistakenly thought that the movie had been titled “The Last Quartet”, which this work is not. (Two more, including the monumental A Minor would follow; The Gross Fugue applies to #13.) 

When I was a “patient” in the Clinical Center at the National Institutes of Health in the fall of 1962, I had a roommate who knew music pretty well, and had particular knowledge of this work.  One night there was a performance on the radio, and he criticized the performance for drawing out the last three C# Major chords.  For the movie, the finale, somewhat condensed, is played during the closing credits, and the last three notes are dashed of quickly by the Brentano Quartet.   I reviewed a performance of this work by Brooklyn Rider on my “drama” blog (Feb. 25, 2012).

The seven movements are played without pause, and that turns out to be critical for the story.  The opening fugue is absolutely strange, and has some of the saddest accidental harmonics from the counterpoint from any romantic music.

I'm getting ahead of myself here, but there were confrontations late in the film that reminded me of the controversy some people perceive in my own motives, particularly back in the days at NIH, and sometimes recently. 
As the film (directed by Madhur Jaffrey and written by Yaron Zilberman) starts, one of the members of the overripe Fugue Quartet, cellist Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken) learns (after noticing some hand weakness) that he has Parkinson’s Disease and may not be able to play much longer.  (I may have this myself, but it is very mild, and the doctor doesn’t think I need to do anything.)  There follows a battle of egos among the other three members (Renaissance-man first violin Daniel ( Mark Ivanir), second violinist Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and his wife Juliette (Catherine Keneer), playing the viola .  Robert and Juliette (not really in a “forbidden marriage” of the Shakespeare world) have a daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots, a UK native who looks and acts too much like Brit Marling), who struggles to impress her elders with her own talents on the violin; but Daniel , while critical of her natural talent, will fall for her.  I guess he wants a nubile young woman, to the disapproval of George Gilder (“Men and Marriage”).   And Robert, his ego wounded by his position in the quartet, also experiments, leading to a crisis in his own marriage.

Robert also resents the idea that he never got to become a “good composer” (which takes a “long time” – see the drama blog Dec. 11, 2010).  He lost the “opportunity” to fatherhood.

Everybody is heterosexual here, but it’s easy to imagine a setup like this with one or two gay musicians.  The dynamics could have been pretty much the same. 

Under such strain among prima donnas (who now really do have trouble putting the ensemble ahead of themselves as individual musicians), the quartet really should fall apart.  Will it put itself together for one last triumphant concert?  Can these musicians behave like grownups again?

The film is distributed  in the US by RKO Radio, which has been resurrected as a brand, this time for independent film.  (Didn’t Sony want this one?)  It is shot in full 2.35:1, so it can show  the ensemble.  I saw this on a big screen at the Landmark Bethesda Row, the only theater in the DC area showing it.  (Why?)

Here’s the official site, link

The film is shot around Central Park in New York City in winter, and looks gorgeous.  There is a shot of the Columbus Circle area that may have been taken form the same condo building in which the concert I reviewed in Dec. 2010 took place, on the Upper West Side. 

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