classical string quartets, they say the second violinist is not necessarily
subservient to the first. They also say
there are no small parts, only small actors, but nobody believes that either. The complicated inter-relationships of an acclaimed
string ensemble will be challenged to their breaking point in Yaron Zilberman’s
A Late Quartet (trailer here), which opens this
Friday in New York.
Fugue Quartet has performed together for nearly twenty-five years. Yet, as their quarter century anniversary
approaches, their future becomes uncertain.
Cellist Peter Mitchell, the senior member of the ensemble, has been
diagnosed with early Parkinson’s. He can
still function well enough to teach his students, including Alexandra Gelbart,
the daughter of second violinist Robert and violist Juliette. However, it is not clear whether he is up to
the rigorous demands of concert performance, especially Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet in C-sharp minor,
a punishing seven movement piece that offers no resting place for musicians who
quickly becomes apparent Mitchell was the glue holding the quartet together,
even though first violinist Daniel Lerner largely dominated the quartet’s artistic
decisions through the force of his personality.
He also has romantic history with Juliette Gelbart, one of the many
reasons for Robert Gelbart’s burgeoning resentment. Yet, recognizing his talent, the Gelbarts
send their daughter to him for personal tutoring, resulting in drama that could
permanently rip the Fugue asunder.
Quartet is soap opera at its most
sophisticated and refined. There is
plenty of angst and jealousy at play, but the screenplay (penned by Zilberman
and Seth Grossman) really sings when addressing the musicians’ approach to
their art. For those coming from the jazz
tradition, it is fascinating to watch the debate between Robert Gelbart, who
wants to play Beethoven’s Opus
without charts to give it a freer, more emotionally spontaneous feeling, and
Lerner, who insists on following every little notation, to the squiggle. Gelbert is not advocating improvisation, just
a bit more interpretive latitude in their attack, but for Lerner this would
ignore the benefit gleaned from years of careful study.
he refrains from eccentric Walkenisms, Christopher Walken still steals nearly
every scene he appears in as Mitchell.
Knocking some richly written lecture scenes out of the park, one wonders
if perhaps he missed his calling as a music teacher. Yet, the most Oscar worthy performance comes
from the one member of the quartet not previously nominated. Mark Ivanir really opens up the icily precise
Lerner, markedly laying bare the messy insecurities so many great artists
share. In contrast, as the Gelbarts, Philip
Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener stay on familiar ground, depicting the
petty tribulations of the privileged class.
We have seen this from them both before, but at least Zilberman shows
them bickering in interesting places, like Sotheby’s.
Perhaps Zilberman’s most important collaborator
is the Brentano String Quartet, whose elegantly elegiac rendition of the Opus powerfully underscores the
film. Their fans will also enjoy seeing
cellist Nina Lee appearing as herself, whom Mitchell is determined to recruit
as his replacement. Memorably capturing
the heart and milieu of classical music,
Quartet deserves attention during award season, particularly for Ivanir and
Walken. Yet, as a true chamber piece, it
may lack the bombast the academy responds to.
Recommended for classical listeners and those who appreciate the drama
inherent in creative differences, A Late
Quartet opens this Friday (11/2) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.
Labels: Brentano String Quartet, Christopher Walken, Mark Ivanir