For two months, I had to stay away from home while my house underwent a major renovation. After sequestered from TV watching for the whole summer, that was one of the first things I delved into as soon as I moved back last week. A couple of days ago, in between re-runs of Olympics events, I was most gratified to watch this CBC/National Film Board documentary. What a breath of fresh air and what an invigorating luxury I have been deprived of all summer! Only on CBC.
The legendary Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932 – 1982) visited the Soviet Union in 1957, at the age of 24, the first concert pianist from North America to be extended and accepted an invitation to play behind the Iron Curtain. Stalin died just four years ago. The Cold War was at its climax. Very few had heard of a Canadian pianist named Glenn Gould, what more, very few had heard Bach since the composer was banned by the totalitarian regime for the religiosity of his work.
This 56 minutes documentary, which won the Grand Prize of the 2003 Montreal International Festival of Films on Art, is packed with valuable archival footage of the actual Gould concerts, meditative shots of the lone pianist against the grand Russian architectural backdrop, as well as some of Gould’s own reminiscence of the historic journey. Interspersed are interviews with significant personalities within the Soviet arts and music circles, sharing their life-changing Gould experiences. Among them are prominent musicians such as the renowned pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, and dissident cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who sheltered the writer Solzhenitsyn and resulted in the Soviet government banning his performances.
Tatiana Selikman, a pianist and teacher at the Russian Academy of Music, recalls the day of Gould’s first concert in May, 1957. She saw the poster and was curious about a pianist from Canada, playing The Art of the Fugue, which nobody ever played in Communist Soviet Union. The Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory was sparsely seated. Then the pale faced pianist came on stage, sat on a low chair, and unleashed a magical performance that mesmerized his small audience. During the intermission, those in the concert hall dashed out to phone their friends, urging them to come right away. As the concert resumed for the second half, the hall was packed to overflow.
And the rest is history…
What Gould brought to the Russian audience was not just Bach, or the intricacies of the Fugue, or the beguiling Goldberg Variations, but a new perspective. Gould’s performance embodied the liberating effect of music, the freedom of artistic expression and the bold exhibition of individualism. The audience was emancipated to a new found freedom that was not sanctioned under totalitarian rule. Using the words of some of the musicians interviewed in the film, the Berlin Wall of music came down, warming the Cold War by a few degrees. For the first time, they were applauding something that was not Soviet. And they were exhilarated.
The recent passing of the Russian dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and the events taking place in Georgia, or even the Olympics, have whirled up sentiments in me that I thought was long gone… the pathos of hearing the muffled cries of the oppressed, be it political, social, or artistic.
There are those who are indignant about the Canadian government subsidizing the Glenn Gould trip, arguing it was a waste of taxpayers’ money. If a lone pianist can inspire the masses, and if music can soften the hearts of man, enhance international goodwill, and reiterate the ideals of humanity, I am all for it. Would it not cost more to send hundreds of thousands of soldiers to the front line?
~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples
The documentary has been posted on YouTube in six parts. Here is the beginning. However, nothing compares to the big screen especially with Glenn Gould playing Bach: