Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Who’s Afraid of Lydia Tár?

The Academy Awards are still a week away, but at least one verdict is in: “Tár” is a hit, having already won some 60 international awards and six Oscar nominations, including for best picture, best directing and best actress in a leading role. It has also engendered passionate conversations, articles and interpretations.

The film, written and directed by Todd Field, stars Cate Blanchett as the fiercely ambitious conductor Lydia Tár. Throughout the film we are never sure what is “real” and what is imagined. She is constantly sanitizing her hands and popping pills and frequently walking in her sleep. Like Lady Macbeth, she is a work of fiction.

But some of my fellow conductors, as well as a few music critics, aren’t so happy. Some of their objections are aesthetic, some refer to errors of jargon, like calling Mahler’s Fifth Symphony “the Mahler Five.” One conductor in particular is more personal: “I was offended as a woman,” wrote Marin Alsop, “I was offended as a conductor, I was offended as a lesbian.”

Not too many years ago, the funny and freewheeling Amazon Prime series “Mozart in the Jungle,” which ran for four seasons, depicted classical musicians engaging in a whole range of morally questionable behaviors. No one in the classical music community, as far as I can find, complained or took any of it too seriously. Real classical music stars such as Lang Lang, Alan Gilbert and Joshua Bell appeared in the series alongside the cast of actors. Even Gustavo Dudamel — now the incoming music director of the New York Philharmonic — showed his good sense of humor by making a cameo appearance as a stage manager. By the final season, the fictional musician Hailey Rutledge, played by the actress Lola Kirke, had become a conductor (Episode 2: “Hailey continues to lie about her current career path.”) So if a thoroughly irreverent show like that didn’t raise a false upbeat, what’s the uproar over “Tár” really about?

Many of the complaints within the classical music community seem to grow out of a concern that if you write a fictional drama depicting unsavory characters (Lydia is accused of abusing a young female student — though that is never proved in the film), the segment of the moviegoing public who don’t generally attend classical concerts will be driven even further away.

But audiences are smarter than that. “Tár” was released on Oct. 7, 2022. That month streams of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 — a work that looms large in the film as one Lydia has yet to record with a major orchestra — were up 150 percent from the previous month, according to data provided by Apple. Compared with the previous October, that number had more than tripled. Streaming of Mahler’s Fifth also jumped on Spotify after the release of the film. The “Tár” concept album on Deutsche Grammophon hit No. 1 on the Billboard classical charts. And you can count on it: When my friend Marin Alsop next conducts Mahler’s Fifth, the press will celebrate what surely will be a brilliant performance — and also refer to “Tár.”

Historically, movies about badly behaving classical musicians were met with about the same suspension of disbelief as were noir mysteries and mobster movies. (Some movies portrayed the maestro as a savior. See “A Hundred Men and a Girl” from 1937.) In 1946, Warner Bros. released “Deception,” about a fictional composer-conductor, played by Claude Rains, who leads the not-mentioned New York Philharmonic. He is a predator and a sadistic genius, and the concert pianist who is also his much younger lover, played by Bette Davis, shoots and kills him. That year also saw the release of “Humoresque,” about a young violinist and an older patroness and lover, played by Joan Crawford, who ultimately commits suicide. Around the same time, moviegoers were treated to the thriller “Hangover Square,” which begins with a classical composer stabbing a shop owner to death and setting his establishment on fire.

Fiction or not, the sort of backstage backstabbing depicted in “Tár” is, alas, very real. We conductors do not generally like our colleagues, and we delight in denigrating one another — that is, until one of us dies. (I am now old enough for the younger set — 50 and under — to say nice things about me, which I find somewhat troubling.)

Yet there are surprising exceptions, Leonard Bernstein among them. In the 18 years I worked with him, the closest I heard him engaging in what the Germans call a dirigentenkriega conductors’ war — was to say of his archrival, Herbert von Karajan, “I don’t think Herbert has ever read a book.” More typical was Arturo Toscanini, who called Leopold Stokowski “il Pagliaccio” (the clown) for appearing in Disney’s “Fantasia” and shaking Mickey Mouse’s hand.

There are many reasons for this. Conductors are competitors. But judging how “good” we are is complicated because we live in a world of opinions, not score cards. Critics respond to the ephemera of our performances with indelible printed words, and far more people read those words than attend our performances. We appear to be all-knowing, grandly wielding a stick and controlling the greatest expressions of humanity, but we are truly in charge only when we are permitted to be in charge.

Our leadership, in reality, is about relationships — a kind of alternating current between the players and ourselves, as well as between the sounds we are making and our audience. When we see Lydia before the orchestra, she is charming, friendly and demanding. We strive so passionately to succeed — to at least be competent — because the job is inherently impossible. “No one knows how bad you are better than yourself” was a brilliant thing Michael Tilson Thomas said to me in 1971. There is no field that has more variations in technique, ability and training than conducting. That is its art and alchemy. We are easy to lionize and easy to denigrate.

Glamour and power were never the point when conducting was developed in the 19th century. Robert Schumann thought we should conduct only when the tempo changed, and otherwise just stand quietly and wait. Verdi, who saw it all — from his early operas, which were led by a violinist seated in front of the stage, to the imperious Toscanini commanding his “Falstaff” from an orchestra pit — said in a letter, “And now conductors actually take a bow, if you can believe it!”

Not all conductors, it should be said, have come out against “Tár,” and especially not all women conductors. After all, the film features a female maestro leading one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world, with a female concertmaster and a female soloist playing the fiendishly difficult Elgar Cello concerto (notably, the piece was played this past week by Yo-Yo Ma, with Daniela Candillari leading the New York Philharmonic; during the past two months, the Philharmonic has been led by Ruth Reinhardt, Nathalie Stutzmann, Lidiya Yankovskaya and Dalia Stasevska). One of the most arresting scenes revolves around a composition by a woman, Anna Thorvaldsdottir. The person who wrote the accompanying music to the film, Hildur Gudnadottir, is a woman. Natalie Murray Beale, who has conducted operas at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, trained Ms. Blanchett. Other successful women conductors have supported the film, including Alice Farnham and Simone Young.

If W.H. Auden saw the last century as the Age of Anxiety, we might consider that we are living in the Age of Grievance. We want every story to tell every story, making storytelling all but impossible. But when metaphor is mistaken for reality, creativity, imagination and joy are extinguished.

So, let’s all take a deep breath. Or at least just take our cue from Gustavo. (The Times’s Joshua Barone called “Tár” “the comedy of the year.” “The less seriously you take this movie,” he said, “the better.”) “Tár” is not actually about any of us. Lydia is a fiction — made real by the performance of a great actress. We are all — composers, conductors, musicians and audience — merely human. The lie some of us cling to, that the artistic greatness that pours through us makes us great, is the truth at the heart of “Tár.”


John Mauceri is a conductor and the author, most recently, of “The War on Music — Reclaiming the Twentieth Century.” He was the musical adviser to the filmmakers of “Tár.”

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