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How the World of Classical Music Has Responded to TÁR

In a blast as piercing as the trumpet herald that begins Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, Marin Alsop recently declared, “I’m offended by ‘TÁR' as a woman, I’m offended as a conductor, and I’m offended as a lesbian.”

Alsop, the first woman to serve as music director of a major American orchestra—the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 2007 to 2021—categorically objects to the Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning film “TÁR,” directed, written, and produced by Todd Field, with Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár, who has risen to the pinnacle of classical music, only to find herself on the brink of taking a great fall.

“To have an opportunity to portray a woman in that role and to make her an abuser—for me that was heartbreaking,” says Alsop.

Field, who began working on the project in 2010, before the rise of the #MeToo movement, understands Alsop’s anger: “It’s an incredible statement. And I appreciate it,” he told Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” “I think that it’s a really important conversation to have. It’s part of why we made the film. Some people were bound to be offended ... Marin Alsop, she’s a storied trailblazer. She was a first of a very, very, still-tiny subset of female conductors … [But] this is about a character, and it’s about the corrupting force of nature.”

Nevertheless, the similarities are uncanny. Along with being a music director (in this case, of the Berlin Philharmonic), Lydia is married to the orchestra’s concertmaster, runs a female mentorship program (the Accordion Project), and once was a protégé of no less than Leonard Bernstein. Alsop checks the same boxes. Given Lydia’s unhinged behavior, no wonder she feels like a subject of character assassination.

With her imperious manner, transactional relationships, and abject mendacity, Lydia, in an unguarded moment, unabashedly describes herself as “both victim and perpetrator.” Although Field initially envisioned the film in the business world, he switched the setting to classical music, still a bastion of white male privilege. As a consequence, his protagonist had to be female, since white male privilege and emotional/sexual abuse remain so commonplace.

Having adopted the values of the patriarchy, Lydia sees herself as a class apart, a person beyond gender. Eventually, we learn that she has created herself out of whole cloth, erasing her Staten Island blue-collar background in her transformation into a cultural superman. Favoring bespoke suits, she insists on being called “maestro” instead of the industry standard “maestra.” She calls herself “father” of the child she shares with her partner. She wants to open her fellowship program to men now that the glass ceiling has been breached.

The film establishes her credentials in an early sequence that suggests “TÁR” might be going for a “This Is Spinal Tap”–style satire of classical music. New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (as himself) interviews Lydia at the New Yorker Festival about the imminent publication of her book, Tár on Tár, and her upcoming live recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in Berlin. As Gopnik rattles off her accomplishments, they pile up in a pillar of preposterousness (five music directorships of major orchestras, a doctorate in ethnomusicology, and fieldwork with the Shipibo-Conibo in Peru). Like Bernstein, Tár is also a composer whose style, according to Oscar winner Hildur Guðnadóttir, who wrote the film’s score, evokes 20th-century modernists like Charles Ives and Henryk Górecki.

Since its release in October, “TÁR” has received overwhelming praise. In presenting the Best Film award to Field at the New York Film Critics Circle ceremony, Martin Scorsese declared: “The clouds lifted when I experienced Todd’s film.” But “TÁR” has its detractors, and perhaps not surprisingly, much of that criticism has come from male critics. Richard Brody, movie editor of the New Yorker, calls “TÁR” “a regressive film that takes bitter aim at so-called cancel culture and lampoons so-called identity politics,” while Mark Swed, classical music critic of the Los Angeles Times, dismisses it as “a mean-spirited horror film ... that resembles fake news more than fiction.”

Their criticisms (and others’) center on inside-the-proscenium stuff known only to industry insiders, such as that in the Berlin rehearsal scenes, each instrument is miked, which is not the case in real life, that the film doesn’t consider the LA Phil as one of “The Big Five” (historically, it hasn’t been), that Lydia is too young to have studied with Bernstein, and so forth. Others have accused “TÁR” of being racist, based on the controversial Juilliard scene (in which Lydia upbraids a student because he says he rejects Bach for “misogyny”) and the ending (in which Lydia is exiled to an Asian outpost to conduct video game scores).

Meanwhile, these dissenters don’t give “TÁR” credit for its mordant humor, refracted through classical music motifs. Lydia takes a page out of Berg’s opera Wozzeck, whose antihero is driven insane to the strains of accordion music. To annoy relatives trying to sell their late mother’s place next door, Lydia picks up an accordion and sings loudly and discordantly: “Apartment for sale! You’re all going to hell. Your apartment’s for sale!” And when rehearsing Mahler’s Fifth with her Berlin orchestra, Lydia orders them in German: “Forget Visconti!”—referring to the use of the Adagietto movement from that symphony in Luchino Visconti’s film “Death in Venice” (1971), where it is heard throughout to evoke a sense of melancholy. (Lydia, however, views the Adagietto, as Mahler did himself, as a statement of love, without the dirge-like tempo heard in Visconti’s film.)

Whether she’s bullying her neighbors, bossing around subordinates, or indulging in even worse behavior, depiction does not equal endorsement, of course, and through her missteps, Lydia becomes the master of her own demise. At one point, before she goes totally off the rails, Lydia announces: “Don’t be so eager to be offended. The narcissism of small differences leads to the most boring kind of conformity.”

Field and his film definitely do not promote conformity. Some might wonder if Field took the name of his protagonist from iconoclastic Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr—and whether he shares that director’s creative principles. After all, Tarr once famously declared: “I don't care about stories. I never did. Every story is the same … I really don't think, when you do a movie, that you have to think about the story. The film isn’t the story. It’s mostly picture, sound, a lot of emotions. The stories are just covering something.”

In an essay just published in the New York Times, conductor John Mauceri, the film’s musical adviser (and a Tony, Olivier, Emmy, and Grammy winner, best known as principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra from 1991 to 2006), notes that several women conductors, including Britain’s Alice Farnham and Simone Young, chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, have spoken up for “TÁR.”

Above all, he reminds us to keep the movie in perspective: ‘TÁR’ is not actually about any of us. Lydia is a fiction—made real by the performance of a great actress,” Mauceri writes. “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.’”

In an interview with the site The World, Farnham agrees that “TÁR” is less about conducting and more a reflection on the abuse of power. It would be hard to imagine “TÁR” being made even ten years ago “because back then, no one would have believed a woman could be the musical director of one of the world’s top orchestras.”

Lidiya Yankovsaya, a rising star in classical music, agrees: “I am glad that the film has sparked so much conversation about conducting,” said Yankovsaya, music director of Chicago Opera Theater (she will conduct the world premiere March 23 and 25 of The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turning at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance). “While it’s unfortunate that Tár is a negative character, I am heartened to know that now, when people think ‘conductor,’ the image in their minds might be of a woman.”

The final word, as it should be, belongs to Lydia Tár. Throughout the film, she invokes this almost existential query: “It is always the question that involves the listener, never the answer.”

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