January 03, 2008


Nadia Boulanger: Mademoiselle. A film by Bruno Monsaingeon. Directed by Yvonne Courson. Juxtapositions. $24.99 (DVD).

Tan Dun: Tea and Broken Silence. Directed by Frank Scheffer (Tea) and Eline Flipse (Broken Silence). Juxtapositions. $24.99 (DVD).

Pierre Henry: The Art of Sounds. Directed by Eric Darmon and Franck Mallet. Juxtapositions. $24.99 (DVD).

Olivier Messiaen: La Liturgie de Cristal. A film by Olivier Mille. Juxtapositions. $24.99 (DVD).

      Niche marketing is nothing new. Classical music is itself a niche in current terms, and a small one at that: far more people are interested in the latest flash-in-the-pan TV heartthrob or wailing-and-bewailing country-music singer than in performances of works by Bach, Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven. And within classical music are even smaller niches, such as the one devoted to 20th-century music. Much of this music still has difficulty attracting concert-hall audiences unless it is surrounded by more-familiar, auditorily comfortable works. And now we have a niche within the niche within the niche: DVD releases of films about major figures in the world of 20th-century classical music.

      It is hard to imagine any of these four DVDs reaching a significant audience, but it is clear that devotees of the people profiled in these films will be delighted to have so much attention paid to so many details of their lives. Each DVD presents an in-depth look at a figure of importance in 20th-century music, with lengths ranging from 79 minutes (Nadia Boulanger) to 176 (Tan Dun, which contains two films). Each DVD includes musical excerpts and a 12-page booklet (16 pages for Nadia Boulanger) that contains an essay, biographical information, discography and more. Nadia Boulanger is packaged differently from the other three DVDs, emphasizing (perhaps unintentionally) the extent to which Boulanger did not fit the mold – any mold. Bruno Monsaingeon’s film is a highly sympathetic (and not particularly biographical) portrait of the woman who influenced Aaron Copland in the 1920s and later became a mentor to many of the major American composers of the last century. Musical excerpts ranging from Bach and Mozart to Stravinsky illustrate the breadth and depth of her importance. As a bonus – a nice one, considering how short the film is – the DVD includes a fine performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 (“Prague”), with L’Orchestre Philharmonique de l’ORTF conducted by Igor Markevitch.

      The other three DVDs all fit pretty much a single pattern, despite the significant differences in the films. Tan Dun: Tea and Broken Silence looks first at the background of the composer’s opera, Tea, a tragedy set against the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The second film is a portrait in words, pictures and music of Tan Dun and four other important contemporary Chinese composers: Chen Qigang, Guo Wenjing, Mo Wuping and Qu Xiaosong. Pierre Henry: The Art of Sounds (109 minutes) looks at the man who co-founded musique concrète in the 1950s with Pierre Schaeffer. This is music that is based on environmental sounds that are transformed by machines, such as the Henry-Schaeffer Symphonie pour un homme seul, which uses sounds produced by the human body. Watching Henry at work in Paris, in search of sounds to be edited and assembled, is fascinating, although the value of his music remains debatable. Much less controversial is the music of Olivier Messiaen, whose work pervades La Liturgie de Cristal (“The Crystal Liturgy,” 107 minutes) and turns it into a portrait as much spiritual as it is musical. All these DVDs are fascinating in their own ways – but all are of very, very limited scope and therefore of very, very limited reach…albeit of tremendous interest to the small sub-niche at which they are aimed.

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