J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Speak the Music: Robert Mann

Classical chamber music is not just about playing well. You must play well with others. According to Robert Mann, he was never a dazzling soloist, but he had a keen sense for the dynamics of a small chamber group’s interplay. At ninety-three, Mann’s reputation only continues to grow, further burnished by filmmaker-symphony conductor Allan Miller’s documentary profile Speak the Music: Robert Mann and the Mysteries of Chamber Music, which opens this Friday in New York.

Just so there are no hard feelings, let us be clear Speak the Music is already available on DVD. However, its limited one-week theatrical run in New York will feature post-screening Q&A with Miller. Plus, this being the City, you never know who might show up. After all, Mann’s admirers are quite accomplished in their own right, including Itzhak Perlman and the late Elliott Carter. In fact, the Centenarian composer (looking and sounding tremendous) credits Mann’s interpretation of his string quartets for his two subsequent Pulitzer Prizes.

While Mann’s family appears throughout the film, Miller is clearly more interested in documenting Mann’s performances and workshops than intruding into his private life. The better portion of the film is dedicated to archival footage of Mann’s Julliard String Quartet and scenes of his incredibly detailed teaching sessions. Anyone who is interested in pursuing a professional chamber music career will find it offers much to study and absorb.

For casual viewers, there is hardly any drama per se, but Mann is remarkably candid about the tensions simmering within the later incarnations of the Julliard Quartet that were largely his own fault. In fact, Mann is quite gracious throughout the film, notably giving a shout out to criminally under-appreciated jazz pianist Bernie Leighton, with whom he played in a military combo during World War II.

Viewers who enjoyed Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet should also appreciate Speak the Music. It addresses some similar musical conflicts, without any of the personal melodrama. It is a short (fifty-eight minutes) but insightful look at a master musician and his preferred musical style. Recommended for classical connoisseurs, Speak the Music: Robert Mann and the Mysteries of Chamber Music opens this Friday (5/2) at the Quad Cinema.

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