A History of Violins

Washington City Paper | February 3, 2006
It must have been cold there in Stokowski’s shadow—and in Ormandy’s, too. For generations, the rank and file of the Philadelphia Orchestra have been obscured by their famously idiosyncratic conductors. In Daniel Anker’s marvelous documentary, Music From the Inside Out, they get to step out from behind their double basses and bassoons, stumble into the warmth of Anker’s camera, and, for once, set their own tempos.

With the filmmaker discreetly following them on day- and nighttime jaunts and tagging along on tours of Europe and Asia, the orchestra members talk freely about what it takes to subordinate their egos to the collective demands of their art. Some of the players have long ago resigned themselves: One remembers listening to a 10-year-old Sarah Chang play violin and realizing, “No matter how much I practiced from now until the day I die, I could never play at that level.” Another, concertmaster David Kim, medaled in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow as a teenager and gave up dreams of solo greatness only after long, arid years in the hinterlands.

And yet, like many of his colleagues, Kim has found compensations. In one scene, he talks about the joys of performing with an ensemble, of the “delicious” jaggedness that great music can have when played by a group. Violist and painter Judy Geist’s communion is even more profound: “I know Beethoven from playing something Beethoven created,” she says. “I know Schubert. I know Bach. I experience history. I experience people and stories. I experience life.”

Life is, in fact, the real subject here. First violinist Hirono Oka smiles wearily as her Japanese mother once again chides her for not being a doctor. Brothers Joe and Lou Lanza revisit their working-class home and find an old family mirror still intact. Israeli cellist Udi Bar-David, partnering with a Palestinian musician, reconnects to the Arab music that as a child he heard “only in the background.” Anker wisely avoids presenting these revelations as anything but personal.

A humane and humanizing look at the guts of the symphonic orchestra, Music From the Inside Out is also—as it had damn well better be—a feast of sound: jazz, salsa, The Rite of Spring, “The Orange Blossom Special,” a gorgeous Bach cello suite, a Tan Dun composition that calls for “bells the size of sake cups.” And most disarming of all, The Four Seasons, played on accordion by a Cologne street musician who leaves his audience of professional instrumentalists grinning in wonder.

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