From Mozart to Mao

July 6, 2009
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A great documentary

A great documentary

Some of the most memorable evenings in my life have nothing to do with money and numbers, and everything to do with music and theater.  As a child, my mother took me to Broadway plays.  Later, in my twenties, I saw Fiddler on the Roof and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, both with the late great Zero Mostel, and The Apple Tree with a very young Alan Alda, who went on to fame in the television series M*A*S*H.

Over time, I discovered folk music in Greenwich Village, then classical music and jazz, and finally cabaret music.  I am certainly not a connoisseur, by any stretch of the imagination, but I know what I like.

I remember when a friend suggested going to hear Van Cliburn play Gershwin’s works at Lewisohn Stadium, located in what is now the City College campus in Harlem.  Since Gary was always coming up with interesting things to do, I agreed.  And was I glad I did.  What an amazing night!  As I remember it, the audience was so enthusiastic that Cliburn performed three encores.

It was in Rochester where I saw the Alvin Ailey dance troupe for the first time, and I was blown away by the energy, the muscularity, and the joy of the performances.

Some very memorable life cycle events have been marked by equally memorable musical plays.  When my wife Joan was pregnant with our first child, we went to see the original A Chorus Line, which had just opened on Broadway.  It took about eight seconds for me to be totally captivated by the play.  It’s still my favorite musical.  When it finally closed, after the then-longest run in Broadway history, we took our two daughters to see it.

Last week we used Netflix to get an Academy Award winning documentary: From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China about the famous musician’s 1979 trip to China.  I thought it was a great film, and it captured the impact that a single person can have.  You can witness Stern’s musical genius not only in performing but also in teaching.  And you can see the hunger and enthusiasm that the Chinese performers and audiences had to learn more about Western music, which had been brutally suppressed.  Little did anyone know, at the time, that China was about to change dramatically.

Check out the film and see for yourself. I think you’ll enjoy it, and the DVD extra, Musical Encounters, which tracks Stern as he returns to China, 20 years later. Some of the young musicians in the original film return and reminisce, most of them in fluent English. They are now adults and are successful musicians and teachers.

My brother-in-law likes to say that “there are no coincidences,” but I find it striking that Sunday’s New York Times had a very long article about the effect of Stern’s 1979 visit to China.  After all, we had just seen the documentary a few days ago, and here is this very detailed analysis celebrating the 30th anniversary of Stern’s trip.  You can read the entire article here.

And by all means, rent the DVD documentary from Netflix, Blockbuster or your local store.  You won’t be disappointed.


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