Speak the Music: Robert Mann and the Mysteries of Chamber Music: Film Review

Speak the Music Still - H 2014
First Run Features

Speak the Music Still - H 2014

Doc will play best with very serious classical fans.

Allan Miller spends time with the co-founder of the Juilliard String Quartet.

An informal take on a world outsiders may assume to be forbiddingly uptight, Allan Miller's Speak the Music introduces us to Robert Mann, a central figure in the evolution of the modern-day string quartet. Accessible but unpolished and narrowly focused, it will have a brief theatrical life before finding its audience of classical-music diehards on video.

Non-diehards may have no clue of the significance of Mann, who cofounded the Juilliard String Quartet in 1946, played with them in various iterations for 51 years, and has been such a preeminent coach for young quartets that he now leads an annual Robert Mann String Quartet Institute. Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Seiji Ozawa says he learned a great deal about music by sitting in on Mann's master classes, and the highlight of this modest doc is time spent in that environment, watching as Mann gives succinct but insightful notes to players whose skill is not yet matched by interpretive insight.

Mann views this emotional connection with music as his strength, acknowledging that he knew at the start of his career he would never be proficient enough to make it as a soloist. Ample clips of the JSQ — including an ancient Bartok performance in Warsaw and a command performance for then-President Ronald Reagan — offer plenty of evidence of his expressiveness, though, and of the tight blend that made that quartet one of the hottest properties in classical music, enduring through thousands of concerts despite times of great backstage personality conflict.

Performance footage aside, the film isn't very interested in the history of JSQ, or even in Mann's own biography. It touches lightly on aspects of his life (his courtship of his wife; the debut concert held two days after Pearl Harbor), but prefers to float around in unstructured fashion, soaking up his attitude toward music and occasionally hearing from admirers including Itzhak Perlman. Relaxed rehearsal scenes at the end show that, even in his 90s and long retired from JSQ, he still enjoys playing with a chamber group and engaging in friendly debate over how best a composition might be played.

Director-Producer-Editor: Allan Miller

Director of photography: Rick Siegel

Not Rated, 58 minutes