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The piano on film: An interview with director Peter Rosen

The piano on film: An interview with director Peter Rosen

Chances are you've seen a film by Peter Rosen. From his award-winning documentaries of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition to biographical portraits of legends from Claudio Arrau to Van Cliburn and Leonard Bernstein to Yo-Yo Ma, he has produced a legacy of more than one-hundred feature length films. These films have brought a world of music to countless viewers across the globe, and they have also communicated the human side of music performance, giving audiences rare glimpses inside the pressure of a piano competition and the life of a performing artist. Peter Rosen was recently at the University of Georgia for a screening and discussion of his film Jascha Heifetz: God's Fiddler. He was generous enough to sit down and discuss his work filming pianists in a variety of settings. For more information about Peter Rosen's films and productions, please visit

Tell me about your newest project. 

Our newest production is a retrospective for PBS entitled The Cliburn: Fifty Years of Gold. It aired in late September, and it celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the competition. As you know, Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky competition in 1958 and returned to America a hero, garnering a ticker-tape parade and national attention. The piano teachers of Cliburn's hometown, Ft. Worth, Texas, raised ten thousand dollars to create a piano competition in his honor, and, in 1962, the first Van Cliburn International Competition was won by Ralph Votapek.

We traveled around the world to connect with the winners of previous competitions— find out where they are now, what they are doing, and what their recollections of the Cliburn are. There have been thirteen Cliburn competitions since 1962. Two of the winners (Steven De Groote and Alexei Sultanov) are now deceased, but there were co-winners in two of the competitions (2001 and 2009), so there are thirteen gold medalists who appear in the film.

What did you find when you interviewed these winners? 

We discussed the importance of winning the competition and the doors that were opened for them. And also some of the problems that came from winning a big competition like that and touring for years, at times experiencing burnout. It is an interesting documentary, and they have interesting stories to tell.

We also traced Van Cliburn's teaching, from his mother through the legacy of Rosina Lhévinne at Juilliard. When we went to visit Andre-Michel Schub, who was the winner in 1981, we interviewed him at the Manhattan School of Music, which occupies the old site of Juilliard. His interview took place in the very classroom where Rosina Lhévinne taught Van Cliburn, and the camera would go from the picture of Cliburn and Lhévinne to Schub's comments about her. This followed the fascinating lineage of the Russian School and Van Cliburn's education—a legacy that continues every four years at the Cliburn competition.

His figure still looms large over the North Texas piano scene. 

Yes. Cliburn transcended the usual role of a great musician. He meant something to Texas all of those years, and Ft. Worth has more pianos per capita right now than any other American town. A lot of that can be attributed to Van Cliburn and the Cliburn competition. 

Have you attended any of the competitions? 

Yes, I attended the entire 2001 competition. That's when we filmed Olga Kern. That was an exciting one.

I remember going outside for a break between sessions—it can be tiring listening to so many renditions of Prokofiev Sonatas. As I was walking around the block, I saw Van Cliburn about fifty feet in front of me, walking by himself. I thought, "Should I go meet him? No, I won't bother him."

Oh, you should have. He's such a friendly character, he would have loved to talk to you.

When you make a documentary of a Cliburn competition, what kinds of things are you trying to portray that the audience doesn't see in the hall?

The obvious thing, which is always the most exciting material for us, is what's going on backstage. These young people are about to important moment in their young lives, and there is incredible pressure and tension. In the 2009 competition, one of the pianists who had just finished a concerto came backstage, and we saw the kind of thing no screenwriter could ever dream up. James Conlon, the conductor, was backstage, and the contestant thought she had done very well— she felt a huge sense of relief. She put her arms around Conlon, kissed him, and said, "I love you!" You could never find that in a scripted movie—it only appears when you are shooting these people at moments of extreme tension. So, it is great to see all that backstage stuff, which I don't think the public is aware of.

Conductor James Conlon rehearses with pianist Alexander Kobrin and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra at the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Who had the initial idea to do a documentary on the Cliburn? 

I don't know how far back it goes. The first full-length film was produced in 1977 by Mitchell Johnson. It featured winner Steven De Groote and was called Contest to Carnegie Hall. That first film was more about the grand prize, which was a Carnegie Hall recital, than the day in, day out, behind the scenes of the Cliburn competition.

In 1985, Robert Dalrymple made a very good documentary of the Cliburn, and it has now turned into a major PBS event, sponsored by Mobil Oil. To this day, Exxon Mobil is still a sponsor, and the Cliburn documentaries have been among the more popular shows on public broadcasting. PBS typically gets twice their normal audience, as people are attracted to the contest aspect of it. It is like the Classical version of American Idol ! At the same time they bring classical music to a huge American television audience that may not otherwise hear it.

I've always felt like those films help non-musicians appreciate what it takes to play at that level. Many people don't realize the work and the dedication that are involved. 

Yes, and hopefully those films motivate even just a few young people to work hard. It doesn't even have to be music. To encourage youth to achieve something, to work hard at what they do, to have that kind of motivation and attitude about work. You know, that's probably doing something good, compared to some of the other things you see on TV.

The Cliburn documentaries deal with young people and an unexpected outcome. How is that approach different from documenting a big historical figure like Claudio Arrau or Jascha Heifetz?

A Cliburn documentary is pure cinema vérité: a fly-on-the-wall approach, where we get as many as twelve camera crews of different types. We use two or three professional crews, and then we bring in students and other people to supplement with other photography and video. In the first round, we have to cover all thirty contestants. You don't know who is going to win, so you can't leave anybody out. It gets a little easier in the second round when there are twelve people. When we get to the final round of six, we hope to have good background stories on the finalists from the previous two weeks.

You can't write anything ahead of time, and you can't have any preconceptions going into it—you don't even know which characters to focus on. We try to get intelligence from the jury. Every once in a while they may let something slip out about someone having a better chance than someone else, but you can't go on that either. In many cases the jury favorites in the early part of the competition are eliminated by the final round. We are making a film without any script, and we just hope that we are in the right place at the right time.

The other type of project, doing a film biography of a great name in music, is much more researched and carefully plotted. We've done films like this on Toscanini, Heifetz, Arrau, and Rubinstein, among others. A huge amount of time, sometimes years, goes into the finding of hundreds of photographs and pieces of information that one might need—every piece of archival film that exits, every newsreel, etc. Until you have all of that, you don't really have the visuals that can sustain a ninety-minute narrative. So, the technique and planning for this type of film is totally different from a competition documentary.

A film can't be like a book, where you can do an all-encompassing, sweeping survey of someone's whole life, because film doesn't work that way. You can only make an hour film about one thing. You can't try to put too many other things into it. People don't retain things from television or film the way they would with a book, and you can't go back and review pages and chapters like you can in a book. You have to have one single focus in a biography. I'm hoping that what came through from the film on Heifetz was the price one pays to be so famous. There's a loneliness, and there are family issues in a life like that.

You really regret that you can't do a full, legitimate biography when you are doing a film. Even though a biography is a planned structure, you still don't know where it is all headed until you narrow it down into that single theme that seems to work for film.

I was really struck with the Heifetz film, by how much I learned about him as a person. I felt like I got to know him as a human being. 

Well that's interesting, and I think part of that is because there's been nothing done on Heifetz, except for some short films done in Hollywood, and YouTube pieces where you hear him playing whatever happened to be in a movie or a TV show. It always amazes me that you have such a great name and a great life, that has such resonance, and yet it took until 2009 for somebody to wake up and say, "Hey, we should make a film about Heifetz."

For pianists and musicians, these films end up being important reference sources. 

Yes. I go to places to show a film, and people often come up with DVDs of something we had done ten years ago. Last night somebody brought the DVD from the 2001 Cliburn— they watch it repeatedly.

We live in a world of audio recordings, and we listen to sound, and how one plays a phrase, but with audio we don't always make that human connection that happens when you see an artist on film. I think that's important. 

Yes, I guess so. Though it also might be nice to just know someone's music totally in isolation, just for what it sounds like. And the less the better in some cases!

Poster from Peter Rosen’s documentary of the 2009 Van Cliburn International Competition
Peter Rosen and Nobuyuki Tsujii onstage in Carnegie Hall, 2011.
Pianist Oxana Mikhailov onstage at Bass Performance Hall in Ft. Worth, Texas, during the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
An onstage camera is ready to capture footage at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Which artists from your work have meant the most to you?

I think out of all the pianists we've worked with, there's something about Arrau. You never get Arrau out of your life. I'm not a pianist. Even though I had twelve years of piano lessons as a kid, I can hardly play anything. Some people can play the instrument, and some can't. And my parents should have known early, before twelve years went by, that I couldn't really play the piano! But because of that training I love the piano, and I've always thought that the only music I really enjoy is solo piano music. So having the chance to work with somebody like Arrau was an amazing experience for me. And now, there's a very intriguing storyline emerging from his life.

Please share! 

I first met Claudio Arrau through his second cousin, Agustin. Agustin approached me out of the blue—he had seen the film we did on Rubinstein. Agustin was a very wealthy man, and he had a huge estate on Long Island. He had a connection with Pinochet, and I always wondered if there were shady dealings there. After I got to know Agustin and had met with Claudio a few times, Agustin offered to put up a fair amount of money for me to film Arrau. Agustin loved music, and he loved Claudio—he would do anything for him.

In 1984, Agustin had paid for Chilean TV to shoot a series of concerts that Arrau gave in Santiago, which we brought back and began to edit into programs. Then we did Arrau's eightieth birthday concert, in Avery Fisher Hall, and then I made a documentary based on some long interviews I did with Arrau and other people who knew him, including William Melton, Arrau's protégé. Arrau later years, and he had very few students, but one student whom he kept to the end was William Melton, a very promising young pianist who gave up his whole career just to be with Arrau. We ended up releasing a series of five concerts with Arrau; these are now being rereleased by EuroArts.

During the project, I would meet Maestro Arrau when he came to New York for dinner, and I also had the opportunity to go to London and on several tours with him. In London, when you walked into the Savoy Hotel with Claudio Arrau, the whole staff would be lined up in the lobby to greet him, because he had stayed there for so many years. It was as if a head of state was entering! When he walked into the Opera House in London, the audience would clap as he came in to take his seat. It was just very moving to see the response to something like that.

On the other hand, in New York, he was sort of unhappy.We would go to concerts in Avery Fisher Hall, and he was always given the guest box. He would always go hear Alicia de Larrocha and Garrick Ohlsson if he could. I remember a concert of Ohlsson's—he played the Busoni concerto. Arrau sat in his box and looked down at the audience coming in. This was in the summer, and there were t-shirts and short pants, even people dressed in what looked like bathing suits! Arrau, of course, was always exquisitely dressed in beautiful suits with a cravat and pins, and he just couldn't believe the New York audiences and the way they looked.

Later on we had a dispute with Agustin Arrau about the royalties from these films. He thought they would be more than they were. I kept telling him that it's the nature of the business—these distributors hardly ever pay out what they owe. The royalty dispute went to arbitration, and we did get some money back. And when all that was settled and these projects were over, I didn't hear anything at all from Agustin for over fifteen years.

Then I got a very strange phone call late one night. I thought it was Agustin's voice, and that he was calling to say goodbye for some reason. I didn't know what it was about, and he said, "Oh I have to call you back," but he never did. And then I read that Agustin died from injuries sustained in a car crash.

Shortly thereafter, I began to get phone calls from people in Chile, where apparently Claudio Arrau had left a very large estate. He had a modest home in Queens, nothing like Agustin's palace. Although he lived very modestly, he had an incredible art collection of Etruscan and other antiquities. They were all over, under the piano, on the piano, these beautiful objects. He also had a substantial collection of impressionist paintings. When he died, I never read about or heard anything about the estate, or how the estate was settled, or what happened to the art.

After Agustin died, I got phone calls from people in Chile who said there had been negotiations with Agustin to put millions of dollars into a Claudio Arrau museum in Chillán, Arrau's birthplace. These callers were upset, because they didn't know where the foundation stood, where the assets were, or what happened to the money. They were calling me because I was associated with the Arrau films, and they thought I might know something. I checked into it, and in a nutshell, the assets in the estate had apparently disappeared. Nobody seemed to know where the money was.

I think this would make a fascinating story—perhaps someone would write a book about it. It is not only about a great artist and all of that backstory, but it's about not being appreciated for who he was in his later years, and getting involved with a potentially unscrupulous relative.

That's an old story with famous musicians. 

Sadly, near the end of his life, Arrau was treated badly by his handlers. His management would book him into little movie theaters in Stamford, Connecticut that would be half full. He finally gave up on New York and moved to Germany, where he spent the final years of his life.

Photo of Claudio Arrau by Christian Steiner. This photo was used on the cover of Peter Rosen’s documentary Claudio Arrau: “The Emperor”, recorded live at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago in Chile, 1984.

Increasingly graduate students and young professionals are making videos to promote their careers. Do you have any advice for them? 

A music video can be amazing if one can figure out how to visualize the music, but it has to be interesting.What doesn't work and never succeeds is a shot of a piano and a pianist on the bench, sitting there playing. Once you see one shot of a pianist's hands on the keyboard, you really don't need to see any more of it. There's a wild video we produced of a pianist named Dora Kuhn, an Armenian pianist, playing the last movement of the Khatchaturian concerto. It has shots from all over the place—she is in a fashion show, she is walking along the Hudson River. And it has clips of Khatchaturian himself, visualizing the composer seventy years ago and the artist today.

Some artists made their reputation on videos. Joshua Bell started out with a famous black and white video, which also included the actress Karen Black. It is shot in a big airplane hangar, with a German nightclub kind of look. And he comes out and plays a Brahms Hungarian Dance. It has a Fritz Lang feel to it. There are many artists whose careers were made by exciting, new, and controversial music videos.

Some of the opera singers have great videos. Renée Fleming is never seen on stage singing an opera. She's running through a field of yellow daisies in her last one. So that's what they have to be. I would put no visualized performance in it. Just use the soundtrack with visuals that are going to attract an audience.

This is an MTV generation—it can never be too corny. Classical musicians have to do what rock musicians do in terms of marketing their stuff. And classical marketing is so stuck in the old world. Just look at the back of classical CDs— they still list every track and every movement in an old-fashioned style. You don't see that in rock and pop genres—those CD covers focus more on artwork that draws an audience in. Younger classical artists are starting to do more of this, and making an engaging, interesting video is one way to reach out to a wider audience.

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