Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 30, 2023 9:33 pm 
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Glimpses of the latest Chopin piano competition

Evgeny Kissin, the great Russian pianist, never participated in a competition, though he played at the opening of the VIII Tchaikovsky one in Moscow, with Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin, three young prodigies proudly put on display by the Russian hosts in 1986. (They were age 15, 12, and 15, respectively.) A review of the film about that competition in the Washington Post remarks that "among 300 contestants, it is hard to decide where to point your cameras until after the winners are chosen. Then it is too late."

Such is the failing of the new film Pianoforte, about the most recent (2021; a year late due to the pandemic) Chopin competition at Warsaw. Using very much a fly-on-the wall approach, this film hardly seems to know who to focus on. Among its choices, only one even won a third prize, I believe. It might have been better just to have gotten a better look at more of the competitors, and to hear more of the better ones. That we get in the 1986 Tchaikovsky film, and that is what counts for music fans. This film isn't made by a music fan or for music fans. That's okay, I guess: a documentary filmmaker needs to be a neutral observer. But he or she also needs to be a well-informed one.

Piano, not as a performer but an enthralled listener, has been important to me for most of my life . Music competitions have not. They first swam into our ken, if we remember that far back, when Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky piano competition in Moscow in 1958, in the middle of the Cold War, and there has never been anything like that before or since. A ticker-tape parade in New York, a hero's welcome. Van Cliburn's performance of Tchaikovsky's 1st was to remain a memorable and significant one: read how glowingly David Dubal describes it in his encyclopedic The Art of the Piano.

Van Cliburn, a competition darling for sure, started his own piano-only Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1962 (the Tchaikovsky is for multiple instruments and male and female voices). The latest Cliburn winner, South Korea's Yunchan Lim, who won at the age of only 18 - like Yundi Li at the Chopin in 2000 - is a sensation. The new online world makes a difference. You can look up and watch and listen to Lim's triumphant Fort Worth 2022 final round performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor conducted by Marin Alsop on YouTube, and there are over 17,000 comments. Marin Alsop was ecstatic, wept, and said he has an "old soul." We have to admit that competitions still matter.

After Van Cliburn is a gap, but it happened that I had a friend, Steve Rosen, whose brother "Nick," Nathaniel Rosen, won the gold medal for cello at the Tchaikovsky competition in 1978. Maybe no ticker-tape parade, but Nick's win was on the front page: Americans still don't win in Moscow very often. This was a kickstart to Rosen's career and marked him as one of the world's best cellists.

The International Chopin Piano Competition, at Warsaw, dating to 1927, has some interesting history. Look at the distinguished names. Vladimir Askenazy came in second in 1955. Maurizio Pollini, till his eighties a distinguished and beloved performer, won in 1960, and his Chopin recordings were the standard for a while. The legendary Martha Argerich, perhaps the most admired and known classical artist today (check YouTube), won first prize in 1965, Garrick Ohlson in 1970 - when the revered Michiko Uchida came in second; Krystian Zimerman, a most distinguished name less known to Americans because he has boycotted the US since 2003, won in 1975.

Sometimes it's who doesn't win that makes the news, and that is especially true for the Warsaw competition in 1980, when Ivo Pogorelich was instantly made famous by being eliminated in an early round, and Martha Argerich's walking off the jury in protest proclaiming him a "genius" whom her colleagues "could not appreciate because of an entrenched conservatism." This gesture contributed to Argerich's own fame and moral status and symbolizes her dynamism and free spirit. Two of Pogorelich's Warsaw competition performances have since turned up on YouTube. He was a rock star, young, beautiful, glamorous. Maybe just a bit too much for a jury, indeed. L'Affaire Pogorelich shows how competitions can be timid, preferring performers who are impeccable without being too unconventional.

Pianoforte fits this description too. It does not quite go the extra mile, or even a city block out of its way, given that it includes none of the background I've provided above. It did diligently interview all 40 competitors, and shot footage in their multiple countries. A fly-on-the-wall approach, which omits so much information a voiceover or onscreen texts could provide, may work better if it's framed with a Fred Wiseman's exhaustive documentary thoroughness, but that's impossible here, because of all the people and the brevity of the competition period.

Pianoforte goes through the competition by days and stages, down to the finals, when an initial forty have been shaved down to a happy twelve. Eight will not end happy (there is a tie for second place). But some will be relieved, and want to come back to try in four years (next time is sooner than usual due to the pandemic, too). Half an hour is devoted to the final phase. Only here the film starts to focus.

What Piatek gives you all through is the color. There's are the vivacious Italians, who laugh and drink champagne. There are Russians, who browbeat one another. There are Asians, a genial Chinese boy whose longtime teacher is mistaken for his mother. There is the tall, thin, sharply dressed young man from Poland who comes with skin foundation and a new, stronger hairspray, but loses his nerve and drops out when he was one of the finalists. (The film crew bid him a sad farewell in the hotel.)

What we get is how scary and intense these things are. Or just annoying, with the teacher who torments her pupil over details, or another who wants hers to practice a concerto for the nth time, during competition, as if this were high jumping or weight lifting. But there are moments of laughter, of chitchat. This is, after all, a time of more and more social media and phone talk, of nothing unrecorded, nobody ever out of touch with back home.

Unfortunately they can watch former performances of other competitors. "He looks like Bruce Lee," says somebody, and her pal, one of Piatek's singled-out ones, says, "Don't let me listen, I'll lose my confidence." It was Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu. He did look like Bruce Lee, or handsome, anyway, and there was reason to lose confidence, because he won the competition.

Critics have said this is a typical competition genre film, like Spellbound, Science Fair or Try Harder. Yes, if the subject doesn't interest you. They've also said this is an exceptionally well edited. Yes again; but that too ignores the content. The passage that cuts seamlessly between six finalists playing the same concerto without dropping a note is a tour de force: but it's just a trick. It doesn't enable us to compare their performances. But while a piano devotee like myself feels a bit hungry after seeing this, the vivid human interest is testified by the numerous awards (see below).

Pianoforte, 91 mins., debuted at Sundance (documentary prize nominee); fifteen other US and international festivals; audience award, Nyon; documentary feature prize, Montclair; honorable mention for Piatek, All True Festival, Brazil. Limited US release, Dec. 1, 2023; internet release, Jan. 9, 2024.

Bruce Liu Warsaw final competition performance.

The first Chopin recording I ever loved - Rudulf Firkusny, Sonata No. 3.

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