Music moved passed its share of milestones in the year just ended, and some of
the more significant have become the substance of some rewarding TV-documentary
footage. This weekend, for example, PBS watchers can journey along with
cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich on his first visit to his native Russia
after nearly 17 years of exile (KCET-28, tonight at 9:30). They can journey
through time, the 100-year history of “Carnegie Hall, a Place of Dreams”
(KCET-28, Sunday at 6:30).
The stories, each running 90 minutes, are otherwise quite different, of course,
and they are differently told. It wasn’t much of a problem for producer Peter
Rosen to ferret out miles of Carnegie Hall footage, some of it dating back to
some fairly shaky film clips from the 1930s, and piece together a convincing
demonstration that Manhattan’s fabled hunk of masonry, still standing strong at
57th Street and Seventh Avenue after at least one attempt to tear it down, has
been home to a stupendous parade of talent in its 100 years.
Being Peter Rosen (who last year gave us a slick TV overview of dimples and
doubletalk at the 1989 Van Cliburn Competition), he has surrounded his survey
in some pretty pretentious hype, starting with the program’s title. You lose
count, after a while, of the metaphors his celebrities conjure up, from Isaac
Stern’s “ingathering of excellence and grace” to Leontyne Price’s “state of
being American.” You learn to look and listen past, however. With the likes of
Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter and Fritz Reiner on the podium, and with
Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein and Gregor Piatigorsky (surrounded by an
all-girl, all-harp orchestra in a knockout distillation of Saint-Saens’ “The
Swan”) the documentarian’s hifalutin handiwork is easy to ignore.
The Rostropovich piece, which profits handsomely from the close-to-the-bone
documentary skill of Albert Maysles (“Grey Gardens,” “Gimme Shelter”) tells
another kind of message. To know Rostropovich, at whatever distance, is to feel
the violence of the man’s larger-than-life but infectious passions: no greeting
without its crushing hug and drenching kiss.
To today’s Soviet populace, crowding in, showering the visitors with cakes and
flowers and love, Rostropovich is the closest to an authentic, accessible hero.
The music-making, with cello and baton, hardly subtle but irresistible (in the
sense that pile-drivers are irresistible) helps. But the man’s radiation of
life and love — for his people, and for the political and moral sanity of his
country — is no less operatic in its own way than that of his wife at his
side, diva Galina Vishnevskaya. Perspective is provided by the shadowing
presence of Mike Wallace, following along to make his own “60 Minutes”
feature, taking in every profoundly human incident and immediately restating it
as a squared-off piece of TV-ese newspeak.
Rostropovich, this marvelous, adoring, eye-watering all-too-brief essay tells
us, is music’s Zorba. The embattled art could use a few more of his kind.
WHAT: “Soldiers of Music — Rostropovich Returns to Russia.”
WHEN: 9:30 p.m., tonight, KCET-28.
BEHIND THE SCENES: Produced by Susan Froemke, Peter Gelb, Albert Maysles and
Bob Eisenhardt.
DURATION: 90 min.
OUR RATING: * * * *
WHEN: 6:30 p.m., Sunday, KCET-28.
BEHIND THE SCENES: Peter Rosen, writer and producer.
DURATION: 90 min.

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