A LATE QUARTET — a musician weighs in

It’s a scenario in which doctors, lawyers and cops find themselves all too often: watching their professions represented by actors on screen.  Being none of the above myself, I can’t speak to how well the details of their work and its lingo are simulated, but given how often those fields show up as the backdrop for drama, I would hope that Hollywood has gotten the hang of it by now.

Classical music, on the other hand, is not explored much, and the odd time it is, it usually makes us musicians cringe.  Technical terms — thrown in to add authenticity — are inserted in all the wrong places, and actors flail while trying to mimic the movements of what is, for all physical intents and purposes, an athlete of 20+ years’ training.

So I was intrigued to learn that a film had been made about that most intense of all classical configurations: the string quartet. And I was surprised to find its representation refreshingly accurate.

A Late Quartet, directed by Yaron Zilberman, is about a fictional, New York-based string quartet called “The Fugue Quartet.” They are currently celebrating 25 years together as a full-time ensemble, and are about to embark on another Beethoven cycle (where they perform all 16 of his monumental works for string quartet) when Peter, their cellist (Christopher Walken), announces he may have to retire. This represents a seismic shift for the other members, forcing them to examine what this group has meant to each of them, and whether or not they like where it has brought them.

Daniel, the 1st violinist (Mark Ivanir), wants to replace Peter and keep going as is.  Robert, the 2nd violinist (Philip Seymour Hoffman), feels that the group — and his own creative spark — have atrophied, and sees this as an opportunity to shake things up.  Most of all, he wants the violinists to start alternating roles — not a small request (more on that later). His wife, and the quartet’s violist, Juliette (Catherine Keener), is in that perennial place in which all viola players find themselves: caught in the middle.

Is this scenario really fodder for drama on a cinematic scale? Absolutely. Though the unfolding story risks coming across as inflated melodrama, its elements are in fact realistic. All realms of elite skill and high achievement are rich with intensity and personal drama, if you can crack their respective codes. And of all the configurations within classical music, the string quartet is the most intimate and intense.

Four musicians, with no official leader, must balance individuality with conformity. It is most challenging here because they are playing instruments that belong to the same family and demand absolute unity – not only of pitch and timing – but also of every physical detail of execution. If one player starts a gesture in a different part of the bow than another, for example, the blend won’t be perfect.

Watching a good quartet concert is like watching synchronized diving at the Olympics, except the routine that lasts for two hours instead of two seconds, and there are four athletes instead of two. Add to this that executing all this disciplined precision are four artists, each of whom is looking to fulfill her or his deepest creative and expressive desires. If all of the above cannot be achieved, the group won’t last. That balance is delicate. The string quartet is often and rightly referred to as a four-way marriage, so every long-term quartet that has ever existed is something of a miracle.

I won’t weigh in as to whether or not A Late Quartet is a great film, but I’ll happily give a run-down of its accuracy in portraying professional string players.

Have you seen ‘A Late Quartet’? Was there anything in it that left you wondering? Feel free to ask!  Submit your questions in the comment section below for Kathleen to answer. Please note, our comments are moderated and will not show up immediately.

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