Film about the power of music: A Late Quartet

Film about the power of music: A Late Quartet

Lovers of classical music should make a point of seeing A Late Quartet. Non-lovers of classical music might also profit, with the additional pleasure of seeing four actors distinguishing themselves as they play four musicians.

The Fugue is a world-renowned string quartet based in New York City (lots of wonderful shots of Central Park along the way).The four members have played together for 25 years, and seem fair to go on for many more, until its much-loved leader and father figure is diagnosed with Parkinson’s and must give up playing the cello. The role is played by Christopher Walken. I’ve always thought that Walken was creepy and weird, but here he won my heart entirely. Playing this role, he gains our complete sympathy and respect as he portrays an already grieving widower who must face another terrible blow alone. His maturity, wisdom, and dignity make a powerful impression and show us clearly how it can be that one person of great integrity can hold a group together.

The fault lines in the group begin to crack open as the leader announces his imminent retirement. Fear, jealousy, self-aggrandizement, and betrayal begin to take over. The ensuing misadventures of the younger three musicians could be a soap opera if it were not for superb, subtle acting by Walken and the ever-extraordinary Philip Seymour Hoffman. Catherine Keener and newcomer Mark Ivanir are very good too. There are a few false notes in the plot where the film threatens to become sentimental and/or predictable, but these are soon overcome by the superb ensemble acting.

Most of all, the inner workings of a classical music group, as depicted, is inspiring. Anyone would learn a great deal from this movie about the mutual selflessness required of classical musicians. The string quartet is portrayed as a representative human community which is able, at least some of the time, to set aside acrimony, jealousy, and marital infidelity for the sake of its higher calling.

The Christian community is like this when it is working as it is supposed to. There is a story about Toscanini, who was supposedly a terror on the podium. One day he rapped his baton, stopped the rehearsal, and said, “Gentlemen, you are nothing!” That was no surprise to the long-suffering members of the orchestra. It was indeed a surprise, however, to hear the great maestro say, “Gentlemen! I am nothing!”  But then he declared, with even greater intensity, “Gentlemen:  Beethoven is everything!”

Thus the musicians were recalled to their great task, which cannot be performed without the subordination of individual needs and wants to the service of something far greater than themselves, for the mutual enrichment of performers and audience alike.

“Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to thy name give glory.” (Psalm 115:1) 

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