Filmmaking #4 - “FROM MAO TO MOZART - Isaac Stern in China”

Spring, 1979. The phone rang in the small back office of the former Symphony movie theater on 95th Street and Broadway. It was a little over a year into its new incarnation as a neighborhood performing arts center, now renamed Symphony Space. On January 8, 1978, more than 5,000 people had come through the doors to hear West Side neighbors Pinchas Zukerman, Eugenia Zukerman, Jaime Laredo, Claude Frank and Lilian Kallir, along with many others, perform works of Bach from 11 A.M. to 11 P.M – free to the public. We called the day "Wall to Wall Bach." The event so excited the neighborhood that my partner Isaiah Sheffer and I decided we couldn't stop there.

Now, a year and a half later, Symphony Space had been launched, with an enthusiastic board of directors and a small professional staff. Our mission: to attract new audiences with innovative formats like the "Wall to Wall" marathons and the soon-to-be-added "Selected Shorts" – readings of short stories by well-known actors.

I picked up the phone in the small Symphony Space office where torn-up movie tickets had once been stored. A voice I didn't recognize asked me if I would be free that summer to go with a crew to China to make a film about Isaac Stern's forthcoming visit. I was not to be the director, I was told, but would act as a kind of musical advisor.

Why musical advisor – it was clearly a meaningless title. Stern must have felt uneasy about the director and wanted a watchdog. Being put in the middle like that would be very uncomfortable, especially since both Stern and the director could easily vent their anger on me. Imagine the crew setting up for a concert: For some reason, Stern is not happy; he asks me what I think. I tell him one of the cameras will not cover the wind instruments as intended. Stern complains to the director, quoting me. The director seethes, the crew grumbles, the Chinese stagehands are confused, and at the end of every day, I sleep with a scimitar under my pillow. Fortunately I was able to diplomatically decline the offer, as I had made a commitment to direct a film in Germany.

They went to China without me, and in fact, Stern did have difficulties with the director. When they returned, he had decided to get rid of him before the crucial editing stage of the film began. Walter Scheuer, the Executive Producer, asked me to take charge. The only restriction on me was that Stern was to have approval of the final edited version. I resisted the offer at first, but I was excited at the chance to work with Isaac Stern on a project of this scope. So I accepted the offer. Tom Haneke, the editor, and Donald Klocek, the assistant editor, had already been hired and they agreed to stay on.

We began to look at the footage. The filming had only been organized at the last minute – there was no outline or shooting script – so the three camera men had been told to film Stern and everything else that moved. They brought back more than 125,000 feet of 16 millimeter film, about 60 hours worth. It took weeks just to screen it all.

Though the footage was completely disorganized, it was spectacular. The government had invited Stern and his family to see the sights, meet with musicians, and listen to violin students. They traveled throughout the country, through mountain ranges and river valleys, to farmlands and small towns. At the last minute, Stern was asked to give two recitals, one in Shanghai, one in Beijing, yet in spite of these impromptu arrangements the halls were filled. Everyone wanted to see and hear this famous Western musician, one of the first to be invited to China after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976.

The fact that we hadn't been present during the filming turned out to be an editorial advantage. We could judge what we saw on the screen without the memory of being present at exciting events. We saw only how everything looked on an editing machine on 9th Avenue and 44th Street. For example, after protracted government negotiations, permission had finally been granted to shoot in Tienanmen Square, in Beijing. As the camera, fastened to a giant crane, slowly rose through the early morning mist, high over the day's first traffic, the producers and the crew were thrilled. It was a fabulous shot. But the excitement never made it through the camera lens – it was just a nice touristy view. We cut it.

Isaac Stern's concerts in Shanghai and Beijing were attended by overflowing crowds. But the most important time he spent in China that summer may not have been as a performer, but as a teacher. Isaac Stern was perhaps our most articulate exponent of the mysterious ways in which Western music works its magic. The Chinese students had been taught that to compete for good jobs they must learn to play fast and loud. Stern stressed that in order to find the music behind the notes they needed to be more personally involved. Easy to say, but it seemed impossible that in these brief sessions, Stern could get the young Chinese musicians to undo years of almost military training. Yet that was his goal.

When he spoke to the students onstage, in front of an auditorium filled with teachers and other young musicians, Stern was direct, clear, eloquent, sometimes flirtatious, often profound. At first the students froze in front of him. But he didn't just talk. He played their pieces for them, looking directly into their eyes, making personal contact. It clearly embarrassed them, but he persisted, conveying what he wanted from them so dramatically that some of the students began to play with the beginnings of free expression right in front of him. They surprised everyone, especially themselves, as they slowly opened up in ways that are still talked about in those conservatory classrooms. Isaac Stern was his own Cultural Revolution. And for us his triumph was right there on the screen.

It took us almost a year to complete the film. But we were happy with the result. One of the most valuable techniques I learned was how to make a single extended scene out of short musical fragments that are unrelated to each other. You might think that the music of composers of such different character as Bach, Ravel, and Sibelius would be impossible to edit together. But we found pauses in the music, similar endings and beginnings of phrases, and useful harmonic relationships that made these connections possible. The drama of these assemblies was heightened by retaining the visual images associated with each of the musical fragments: Stern playing; a student playing alone; Stern and student playing together; Stern again. The result was a number of musical ribbons, thirty to forty seconds long, that we could use as transitions from one scene to another, or as climactic endings to Stern's teaching sessions.

The day finally arrived when Stern was to approve the edited film. Together with him and his wife, we all crammed together into our 9th Avenue editing room. The screening went well until towards the end of the film a scene came up that showed preparations for a performance in Shanghai. During the rehearsal with his accompanist David Golub, Stern was seen to vehemently reject the concert piano, a damp and moldy instrument, impossibly out of tune. When the Chinese insisted that it was the best piano in the city, he startled everyone by walking offstage and telephoning directly to the US Embassy in Beijing. He demanded that the embassy send a good piano to Shanghai immediately, by Army air freight if necessary. Surely, the officials in Beijing would not want to disappoint their important guest. As he continued to press hard, he began to look a little foolish. The cameras were rolling the whole time. Eventually the Shanghai people did find a better piano. It was in a nearby broadcasting studio. Stern had his new instrument after all. But watching the events on our editing screen, Stern was visibly embarrassed and wanted the whole scene removed. So did his wife. I resisted, but the Sterns remained adamant. 

The next day I came to the editing room and found Stern and his wife already waiting to see if the scene had been removed. But I had thought of an argument. I explained that the rest of the film showed him almost miraculously transforming the attitudes of many young Chinese students toward western music. His accomplishments were heroic. But no one believes in heroes. Viewers of the film would think we had cut out all the scenes that showed any failures with other students. Precisely because the Shanghai piano scene showed a less than perfect Isaac Stern – an Isaac Stern being overbearing and even a little silly but recognizably human, including the scene would enable the audience to accept his extraordinary successes in the rest of the film. 

He looked around the room. He looked at his wife. Then he looked at me, prolonging the suspense – a performer in every situation. "OK," he said.

"FROM MAO TO MOZART – Isaac Stern in China" won an Academy award in 1980 for best feature-length documentary.

Post script 

In 1978 I directed a film about a trip to Japan made by the Philadelphia Orchestra under its longtime conductor Eugene Ormandy. The tour started in the southern port city of Fukuoka, continued north along the coast, and arrived in Tokyo for the final performance. The program included "Don Juan," by Richard Strauss, a flashy, dramatic work, perfect for this virtuoso orchestra. In the early moments of the piece there is a huge crash on the cymbal. I wanted a close-up showing the cymbal player getting ready. Then, at the exact moment of impact, the camera was to quickly pull back and reveal the whole orchestra. It would make a sensational shot. But without perfect timing it would be a flop, and the glaring error could make the entire piece unusable. Language difficulties with the Japanese crew made for limited progress during the rest of the rehearsal. I kept shouting "pan left – no, not that left, the other left." So I never had time to work on the cymbal shot. An interpreter told me later that the cameraman understood what it was supposed to look like, but warned that to attempt it for the first time in a live concert could be disastrous. 

May he flourish forever: the camera man did risk it in the performance and caught it perfectly. It looked spectacular – people were cheering in the recording booth. Eventually the shot made its way into a demonstration tape that a producer friend showed to Isaac Stern. A few months later I received that telephone call at Symphony Space.