In addition to its concert series, the yearly Berkshire festival’s Close Encounters with Music, lead by charismatic cellist and conversationalist Yehuda Hanani, explores the multi-faceted themes of classical music’s culture.
As part of this year’s festival, Peter Rosen presented his emotive documentary Touching The Sound on blind Japanese pianist and 2009 Van Cliburn gold-medalist Nobuyuki Tsujii.
“This is a film about the human triumph, as well as artistic triumph,” comments Hanani. “One thinks of Beethoven overcoming adversity. A deaf composer and a blind, virtuoso pianist… The way Peter spins the story from early childhood…all the way to the Van Cliburn competition is an inspiring crescendo,” offers Hanani, whose weekly Classical Music According to Yehuda airs on WAMC Northeast Radio’s Round Table Discussions.
In our conversation about the latest release in his longtime career, Rosen, the New Yorker documentary film maven defines “storytelling” as the essential ingredient of any film: a challenge that does not differ with respect to the message in a film on music.
“Every project has a different theme and constellation of how the film came about and how its production developed, however, the same structure of the traditional story development – its characteristic three-act partition – basically applies to all my movies,” explains the filmmaker, an architect by education.
Whether Rosen portrays Arthur Rubinstein’s life or the Van Cliburn’s International Piano Competition, he never aims to show one’s technicalities as they master their instrument, which in effect – as important as those details may seem – would be quite boring to watch. Except in taped live recordings that show a performance in its entirety, like in Tsujii’s Live at Carnegie Hall, Rosen rarely shows a full-length piece of music performed on film. “It is always a fine line to define how much music you can actually use without disrupting the flow of the story. We always get letters from people who had wished to hear more of the pieces performed, but the average attention span only allows for uninterrupted music to be played for 2-3 minutes without losing the thread of the story,” says Rosen.
That is also the case in Touching the Sound, which trails the gold-medalist from his mother’s touching descriptions of the first moments that his blindness, as well as his exceptional musical gift became clear, to his winning hearts and gold: “Nobu,” as his fans lovingly call him, asserting himself on the concert stage. Photo: Nobu and his mother Itsuko
Blind from birth, Nobu at 23 shares his inspiring, heroic journey and his prodigal gift for the piano, portraying facets of his identity as an international performer and cultural ambassador of his native Japan. His sincerity comes through as much in his art as in footage shot during various concert tours that portrays his happiness and eager excitement to experience different locations, people, and culinary surprises. Considering that he overcomes such extreme adversity, judging his pianistic achievements in comparison to his ‘seeing’ peers seem even more arbitrary, than the already debatable and subjective decisions of any competition’s jurors.
The Van Cliburn’s jurors, who included the distinguished pianist Menahem Pressler, admitted to having to work extra at their “objectivity-gage” to award their prestigious approval, solely on the grounds of the artist’s pianistic excellence. Nobu himself admits that he would prefer to be rather known as a great pianist rather than ‘the great blind pianist,’ whose astonishing gift is a curiosity over which people marvel.
With the help of translations by Nobu’s constant travel companion and manager, Nick Asano and Nobu’s childhood piano teacher Masahiro Kawakami , the film expresses much of the artist’s sincere love for sharing his innate musical talent, his modesty, gratitude, and openness, with which he meets life’s challenges and cheerfully embraces its pleasures. The film focuses lastly on his actual mastery of the keyboard. Set against a backdrop of the music of Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Beethoven, and Mussorgsky, Rosen’s camera always focuses in on the angle of human sentiment: Nobu’s heavy breathing with restless desire to conquer the stage, right before his Carnegie Hall debut, followed by the release of all the built up tension in the teary-eyed, sobbingly-performed encore, consisting of his own composition, written in honor of Japan’s Tsunami victims.
Rosen seeks out his film’s characters according to the drama they convey. He looks for storylines created by individuals’ conflicts, their relationships with others or their own artistic personality, and most importantly by their redemption: overcoming their individual challenges – that’s the story he tells, amidst each project’s own, particular soundtrack. Rosen chooses to rather‘show’ than ‘tell,’ guiding the camera’s focus on his characters’ emotional reactions, which form the arc on which he builds the story.
Rosen started his film career with USIA projects directed at enhancing America’s cultural reputation overseas in the late seventies. One of these assignments – a portrait of Leonard Bernstein – became the landmark for Rosen’s passage into the classical music business.
“I am not a musician, myself. I resentfully survived 12 years of piano lessons, without any results – I can read music, but can’t play a thing,” he volunteers. “Of course, I knew of Bernstein’s immense persona in music, but I did not approach his personality from the standpoint of a musician – I did not have that kind of ‘highbrow’ perspective.” This was, as he convincingly relays, Rosen’s recipe for success: “While films on music are generally pitched to an already knowledgeable audience with a musical background, I intuitively get what the general public wants to see and relates to,” he says.
This certainly holds true for those films in Rosen’s copious filmography that I had the opportunity to watch. A good example would be his tour de force, The Maestro, about the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, in which Rosen strays from depicting the maestro’s actual musical career, focusing instead on how the conductor used his prominent status as a vehicle in his ideological battle against fascism.
Of course it is the music, the fundamental soundtracks of these documentaries on musical figures, which provides the stories’ intrinsically sustaining feature; their developments’ accompaniment, enunciating their climaxes. The essential messages that Rosen’s films convey with astute perspective, transcend his explorations of human nature through his characters’ struggles under intense conditions, expressing their growth and individual geniality, and highlighting their supreme heights of artistic achievement.
And that is the kind of emotional connection, in music- as in film-making, audiences react to with applause.