With three books already out on its collective lives and musicianship, and now a full-length documentary movie, the Guarneri Quartet must be doing something right. One of the things it does right, obviously, is to sign on with the right management and public-relations personnel; chamber-music ensembles don’t automatically become documentary subjects without a push here and a shove there. Another thing it does right is to play well. It has, indeed, been doing that for over a quarter-century, and it has gone through that long life without a single membership change.
Allan Miller, previously known for his Oscar-winning 1981 documentary “From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China,” is obviously a practiced hand at keeping a low profile around his subjects. He actually makes you believe that he and his camera crew just happened to be at the Guarneri Quartet’s rehearsal sessions during moments of hand-to-hand (or foot-to-mouth) combat over points of interpretation and repertory.
Did that crew just happen to be on the plane, for example, when viola player Michael Tree pulled a peevish tantrum about wanting to play violin once in a while? Were they really just in the neighborhood when violinist Arnold Steinhardt vainly tried to interest his colleagues in the trashy String Quartet by Fritz Kreisler, only to have cellist David Soyer ridicule the work as “Chinese monkey-business”?
Whatever its ratio of verity to hokum, “High Fidelity — the Adventures of the Guarneri String Quartet” is loaded with valuable insights. You do get to eavesdrop on some illuminating rehearsal moments, and come away with a fair idea of the genuinely democratic outlook that forms the heartbeat of any such ensemble. You weep along, as the group must sacrifice its comfortable stage setups to appease a gang of smug German television engineers. You shudder, as manager Harry Beall, obviously a shrewd money hand, laments that the group refuses to play more than 100 dates a year.
There is also some excellent travel footage, lots of in-and-out-of-airports stuff, a Prague audience turned rapturous at music by their own Smetana (in a Guarneri performance described by a critic as “staggeringly and wonderfully Americanm”); the absurdly gorgeous venue of a made-over theater in Tampa, miles too large for chamber music; adoring college audiences asking bright questions in pre-concert get-togethers.
Therein, in fact, lies the real “fidelity.” As far as the Guarneris themselves are concerned, Miller’s documentary is mostly high-class contrivance. Then you get a look at a young audience held spellbound by what the Guarneris have been doing so well these 25 years (and still do): the dizzying virtuosity in a Beethoven finale, the diabolical mystery in a Bartok excerpt. And so you believe at least one of the Guarneri statements into Miller’s ubiquitous microphone. “There aren’t many musicians,” says cellist Soyer, “who can say that they’re doing exactly what they want to do.”
Accompanying “High Fidelity” is a 5-minute short, “To Her Glory,” in which Los Angeles Philharmonic harpist Lou Anne Neill loads her harp into a van, drives through some pretty Oregon scenery, and ends up serenading Mt. Hood “in a personal act of honoring Mother Nature.” She plays a Handel concerto, and an invisible orchestra materializes in the background, just like in the old Harpo Marx movies.
THE FACTS*The film: “High Fidelity, the Adventures of the Guarneri Quartet” (unrated).*The stars: The Guarneri String Quartet — Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley, violins; Michael Tree, viola; David Soyer, cello.*Behind the scenes; Produced and directed by Allan Miller; released by the Four Oaks Foundation.*Running tiime: One hour, 25 minutes.*Playing: Laemmle’s Monica 4-plex, Santa Monica.*Our rating: ***