Music documentary, not rated, 75 minutes, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
Most of what we learn from Paul Hegeman’s sweet, understated documentary comes from the music itself. The music is the work of the Estonian Arvo Pärt, described here as the world’s most-performed living composer. If you’re familiar with his music, you know you’re in for a treat.
But chances are you’re not familiar with the reclusive Mr. Pärt himself. And on that front, this film has very little to offer. Born in Estonia. Studied in Moscow. We do get to see and even hear something of the composer as he sits uncomfortably for brief, unrevealing bits of an interview with the film’s director, or attends rehearsals and explains to the musicians the effects he wants from the music he has put on the page. Perhaps most revealing of all is the extended scene near the end where the camera stays on his face as he listens to the Cello Octet Amsterdam perform one of his compositions.
When we’re not hearing the music (and sometimes when we are) we’re hearing from an assortment of conductors, soloists, choreographers, and other admirers as they try to describe what Pärt’s music means to them. The word spirituality comes up a lot. The music itself covers a wide range of styles, from gently melodic to challengingly strident, and the reactions to it cover a similarly broad spectrum, from a reflective “You ask yourself, what did you want from life and did you make the right choice?” to a cheerful “There is a click, and you get that Pärt feeling.” The reaction that delighted the composer most was when at a crescendo in a rehearsal, a dog howled.
What we do absorb about the man himself is the sense of a gentle, fiercely creative individual who is shy and self-effacing in his personal makeup, but demanding and extremely specific when it comes to the interpretation of his music. He’s balding, with a fringe of salt-and-pepper hair curling down to his collar and a grizzled beard decorating a face inclined to smile or to pucker in concentration as he follows and lives the music. He has a great sense of humor in his private life, the conductor Tõnu Kaljuste assures us.
Mostly, it’s the music. Music is the language in which Pärt is comfortable explaining himself. It’s the world he lives in, it’s the faith he follows. And as far as this film is concerned, if you want to know about the world’s most-performed living composer, that is where you’ll find it.