Arts Festival

To land in the dark, baton in hand

MAESTRA at work: Marin Alsop. Photograph by Grant Leighton.

PICTURE THE SCENARIO. A performance of Gustav Mahler’s first symphony, the Titan, composed in 1888, is about to begin. The bassoonists stand poised, the trumpets in the wings. All due time hewn established pomp and ceremony is de rigueur; performers are in black. The audience is quiet, in anticipation. The conductor is at the podium, baton in hand. And, horror of horrors! She’s a woman: Marin Alsop. The story of the first female musical director of the Baltimore State Orchestra, directed by Bernadette Wegenstein, features on this year’s Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival.

The Conductor is a beautifully made foray into a cultural first, but on a level this work struggles, and that business of highlighting a ‘first’ in this way is always an uncomfortable kind of shot in the arm for how self-congratulatorily upbeat our society is becoming. Rich with platitudes about sexism in the industry, glass ceilings and bias, as well as lots of provocative sound bytes, this work, lets you down by the unfulfilled promise of more music. This is not a documentary version of a film of the magnificent calibre of Radu Mihăileanu’s 2009 gem, The Concert, in which narrative is threaded through with politics, language, music and bias with the kind of beauty and wisdom that makes Tchaikovsky touch you forever.

It’s a tale told about a seed being planted in the heart of a nine-year-old by Leonard Bernstein with such depth and possibility that it was able to grow into an unassailable force. But then there is the little girl. Wide eyed and lovely, but most obviously not a nine-year-old Alsop, this little child is part of the visual narrative of the film, but a red herring, nevertheless: is she meant to be you? Me? The face of dreams that are yet to ripen? This is not clear.

Then there’s a further strangeness in the narrative. American novelist Lauren Groff responded to a journalist of The Harvard Gazette in 2018 that she will answer questions about her domestic life on the condition that the same questions are posed to male novelists. In The Conductor we find detail about Alsop’s childhood and personal life that feels not only invasive, but unnecessary. Would this kind of intrusive curiosity be tilted at a conductor who is a man?

Yes, her successes were pitted with sexism on the part of the arts. Yes, she fought them with tenacity and pure skill and yes, she rose to the very heights of the discipline of ‘playing an orchestra’ effectively by herself, and being the first woman in western music to lead a major US orchestra. But this documentary seems to run so rapidly out of clichés that it recycles them throughout, and does not give muscle to the music itself. Or her interpretation of it.

Alsop is an incredible personality in the music industry. And this is not one of the central lines of the film. You don’t get the shades of wildness that you see in an understanding of Canadian soprano/conductor Barbara Hannigan’s life and career, for instance.

The trailer of this work sadly gives you everything you need here: as you finish watching the whole work, your heart is not overwhelmed with the music, nor is your spirt left limp from experiencing such highs and such lows. Rather you feel a little hammered by feminist political correctness.

  • The Conductor is directed by Bernadette Wegenstein. Produced by Annette Porter, it is written by Stefan Fauland and Bernadette Wegenstein features creative input by Shana Hagan (cinematography) and Stefan Fauland (editing); it features on the Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival which runs from 23 June until 3 July 2022, on-line, in Cape Town at the Labia Theatre and in Johannesburg at the Killarney Centre Cine and the Bioscope in Milpark.

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