Although the Academy Awards are yet to be announced, at least one verdict has been rendered: "Tar" is a smash hit. It has already won 60 international awards and six Oscar nominations including best picture, best director, and best actress in leading role. It has also inspired passionate discussions, articles, and interpretations.
The film, written and directed by Todd Field, stars Cate Blanchett as the fiercely ambitious conductor Lydia Tár. Throughout the film we are never sure what is 'real' and what is imagined. She is constantly sanitizing her hands and popping pills and frequently walking in her sleep. Like Lady Macbeth, she is a work of fiction.
But some of my fellow conductors, as well as a few music critics, aren't so happy. Some of their objections are aesthetic, some refer to errors of jargon, like calling Mahler's Fifth Symphony 'the Mahler Five.' One conductor in particular is more personal: 'I was offended as a woman,' wrote Marin Alsop, 'I was offended as a conductor, I was offended as a lesbian.'
Not too many years ago, the funny and freewheeling Amazon Prime series 'Mozart in the Jungle,' which ran for four seasons, depicted classical musicians engaging in a whole range of morally questionable behaviors. No one in the classical music community, as far as I can find, complained or took any of it too seriously. Real classical music stars such as Lang Lang, Alan Gilbert and Joshua Bell appeared in the series alongside the cast of actors. Even Gustavo Dudamel — now the incoming music director of the New York Philharmonic — showed his good sense of humor by making a cameo appearance as a stage manager. By the final season, the fictional musician Hailey Rutledge, played by the actress Lola Kirke, had become a conductor (Episode 2: 'Hailey continues to lie about her current career path.') So if a thoroughly irreverent show like that didn't raise a false upbeat, what's the uproar over 'Tár' really about?
Many complaints in classical music circles stem from a concern that writing a drama portraying unsavory characters will drive away the segments of the audience who don't usually attend classical concerts. Lydia is accused, though it is never proven in the film, of sexually abusing a young girl student.
But the audience is smarter than that. "Tar" was released Oct. 7, 2022. The streaming of Mahler's Symphony No. 5 was available that month. According to Apple data, 5 -- a work that is prominent in the film because it was the first Lydia has recorded with a major orchestra -- saw a 150 percent increase over the previous month. This number more than tripled in October compared to the previous month. The Billboard classical charts ranked No. 1 You can count on this: When Marin Alsop conducts Mahler’s Fifth, my friend will be celebrating what will undoubtedly be a great performance.
Movies about bad classical musicians were seen with the same disbelief and suspension of belief as noir mysteries and mobster films. Some movies depicted the maestro as a hero. You can see 'A Hundred Men and a Girl,' which was released in 1937. Warner Bros. released "Deception" in 1946 about a fictional conductor and composer, played by Claude Rains. He leads the New York Philharmonic. He is a predator, a sadistic genius, so Bette Davis plays the role of his younger lover and shoots and kills him. Joan Crawford played the role of Joan Crawford in 'Humoresque', a film about a young violinist who is also a patroness. She then commits suicide. The thriller "Hangover Square" was released around the same time. It begins with a classical musician murdering a shopkeeper and setting fire to his shop.
Fictional or not, the backstage backstabbing described in "Tar" is very real. Conductors don't like their colleagues and enjoy blaming each other until the end. (I am old enough to allow the younger generation -- 50-plus -- to speak nice about me. This I find a little troubling.
There are surprising exceptions to this rule, Leonard Bernstein being one of them. Over the 18 years that I was with him, I saw him engage in what the Germans called a dirigentenkrieg, or a conductors’ war. I said this about Herbert von Karajan, his archrival. 'I don’t think Herbert has ever listened to a book. Arturo Toscanini was more typical, calling Leopold Stokowski "il Pagliaccio" (the clown), for his appearance in Disney's "Fantasia" and shaking Mickey Mouse’s hand.
This is due to many factors. Conductors are also competitors. However, judging our 'goodness' is difficult because we live in a world that values opinions and not scores. Our performances are viewed by critics as a collection of indelible printed words. Many more people read these words than they attend them. Although we appear all-knowing and grandly wielding sticks, we are only allowed to be in control when it is permitted.
Our leadership, in reality, is about relationships — a kind of alternating current between the players and ourselves, as well as between the sounds we are making and our audience. When we see Lydia before the orchestra, she is charming, friendly and demanding. We strive so passionately to succeed — to at least be competent — because the job is inherently impossible. 'No one knows how bad you are better than yourself' was a brilliant thing Michael Tilson Thomas said to me in 1971. There is no field that has more variations in technique, ability and training than conducting. That is its art and alchemy. We are easy to lionize and easy to denigrate.
Conducting was not about power and glamour in the 19th century. Robert Schumann believed that we should only conduct when the tempo changes, and else just wait. Verdi saw it all, from his first operas which were conducted by a violinist sitting in front of the stage to Toscanini's commanding his Falstaff' from the orchestra pit. He wrote, "And now conductors actually bow, if it's possible!"
Not all conductors, it should be said, have come out against 'Tár,' and especially not all women conductors. After all, the film features a female maestro leading one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world, with a female concertmaster and a female soloist playing the fiendishly difficult Elgar Cello concerto (notably, the piece was played this past week by Yo-Yo Ma, with Daniela Candillari leading the New York Philharmonic; during the past two months, the Philharmonic has been led by Ruth Reinhardt, Nathalie Stutzmann, Lidiya Yankovskaya and Dalia Stasevska). One of the most arresting scenes revolves around a composition by a woman, Anna Thorvaldsdottir. The person who wrote the accompanying music to the film, Hildur Gudnadottir, is a woman. Natalie Murray Beale, who has conducted operas at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, trained Ms. Blanchett. Other successful women conductors have supported the film, including Alice Farnham and Simone Young.
W.H. W.H. It is impossible to tell a story if every story has to be told. When metaphor is confused with reality, creativity, imagination, and joy all go out the window.
So, let's all take a deep breath. Or at least just take our cue from Gustavo. (The Times's Joshua Barone called 'Tár' ' the comedy of the year.' 'The less seriously you take this movie,' he said, 'the better.') 'Tár' is not actually about any of us. Lydia is a fiction — made real by the performance of a great actress. We are all — composers, conductors, musicians and audience — merely human. The lie some of us cling to, that the artistic greatness that pours through us makes us great, is the truth at the heart of 'Tár.'