December 15, 2011

(+++) MUSIC, PICTURED

Kinshasa Symphony: A Film by Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer. C Major DVD. $24.99.

Luciano Pavarotti: A Film by Esther Schapira. EuroArts DVD. $24.99.

George London: Between Gods and Demons – A Film by Marita Stocker. Arthaus Musik DVD. $24.99.

     It is arguable – always has been – whether it makes much sense to release concerts on DVD rather than CD or SACD. The sound is no better; the director of the filming or taping decides what viewers will see, which may or may not be what they would like to look at; and the focus tends to be more on the performers and less than on the music than in an audio recording. However, we live in a highly visual age, where many people are accustomed to pictorial views of just about everything; and there is no doubt that a well-produced, well-shot concert DVD can have considerable dynamism. Still, DVDs of standard concerts remain mostly a niche item, their value uncertain. Not so the value of DVDs about musical subjects. These use music as a jumping-off point for biography, social commentary or analysis, and even though they too are niche products (classical music itself is not of infinite appeal; films about classical-music issues are of even narrower interest), they can be quite worthwhile for people looking for something pictorial that is more than a recording of an ordinary concert.

     Certainly there is nothing ordinary about the concerts in Kinshasa Symphony. This is a fascinating film about attempts to establish and maintain the only symphony orchestra in the Congo – a group that has had to endure war, political repression and an apparently unending series of crises. A 95-minute documentary with 10 minutes of bonus material, Kinshasa Symphony has at its heart an event so emblematic that it is hard to believe it actually happened: just before the final, choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, the power goes out. This quickly becomes a metaphor for the power of music and the staying power of the musicians, who are determined to perform despite long, long odds. Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer balance the musical lives of the orchestra’s players with their worse-than-humdrum everyday existence, which is often a struggle nearly unimaginable to concertgoers and to musicians elsewhere in the world. Watching these musicians (some of whom are quite good) practice outdoors amid slums, play on street corners while indifferent pedestrians pass them by, and attempt to assemble a semblance of elegance for a full-scale performance, viewers will be rooting for them all the way. And what better music to stand for joy and uplift in human existence than Beethoven’s Ninth? The filmmakers actually lay on the appropriateness of Beethoven a bit thickly at times, but the film as a whole works wonderfully well, showing how a combination of hope and musical focus is allowing these hard-pressed musicians to survive, if not exactly thrive, in a remarkably harsh and unforgiving social and political environment.

     Two films about better-known musicians are more straightforward, although they will be quite appealing to fans of the singers on whom they focus. Luciano Pavarotti is a well-done if fairly straightforward one-hour documentary (with 35 minutes of bonus material) on the life and art of the famed Italian tenor (1935-2007). Esther Schapira sees Pavarotti as a popularizer, a man whose enthusiasm for his art communicated itself to audiences worldwide. The proposition is arguable – Pavarotti, both individually and as one of the “Three Tenors,” certainly appealed to people beyond standard opera audiences, but whether this in some way brought more people into contact with and enjoyment of the great classical repertoire is by no means certain. Still, Pavarotti was one of those larger-than-life Italian tenors whose life, both personal and in the world’s opera houses, seems to invite a big, splashy display. That is most of what it gets in this film, which is not entirely hagiographic but which certainly does nothing to dispel the Pavarotti mystique or suggest anything significantly negative in his personality or art. In fact, the bonus interviews – with Bono, José Carreras, Herbert Breslin and Joseph Volpe – serve to make the singer an even bigger and more emphatic presence on the opera scene.

     Fewer people today are fans of George London, partly because he was not a tenor (bass-baritones tend to be less popular) and partly because his vocal career was ended in 1967 by a paralyzed vocal cord. London (1920-1985) was an important singer from the late 1940s until his forced retirement, but today does not retain the aura of fascination of some of those with whom he sang, such as Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi. Marita Stocker’s one-hour film will not likely bring London many new fans – but, interestingly enough, the bonus material, which runs a generous 95 minutes, may. It contains previously unreleased archival footage from concerts and opera performances, showing just how versatile London was: he not only sang Figaro, Don Giovanni, Scarpia and Wotan but also performed in musicals and sang spirituals. His voice is rich, his stage presence large – he had considerable charisma, whether as hero or villain – and the range of his interests impressive. Stocker’s film includes informative interviews with London’s widow, Nora London, and with several former colleagues and current opera stars influenced by him – showing that his legacy endures. But that is de rigueur in a visual biography like this one. There is nothing especially surprising in George London: Between Gods and Demons, but there are many appealing elements for fans of the singer and those who would like to learn more about a fine, if somewhat under-appreciated, voice of the middle of the last century.

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