It’s been a busy few days once again and luckily the trains, planes and automobile gods have been on my side.
It began with a decent BA flight to one of my favourite US cities: Chicago. The excellent Gene Siskel has been a warm host to my films over the years and, ages ago, they booked a season of preview screenings of IN SEARCH OF CHOPIN. Flying these days is so easy with all the hundreds of entertainment channels available though of course I watched the airline version of our Matisse film! Seriously, I did but then I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir: Wes Anderson) that I missed in the cinema. I loved it – and wished I had seen it on the big screen. I can’t say it enough: films are best in the cinema… I picked up a paper on arrival at the airport and was delighted with a decent review for Chopin in the Chicago Tribune:
Anyone who admired British director Phil Grabsky's previous documentary portraits of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn is likely to find his latest film, "In Search of Chopin," equally absorbing, informative and, yes, entertaining. Performance excerpts and interviews flesh out the saga of the brilliant if short-lived Polish-born composer and pianist (he was only 39 at his death) whose keyboard music represents the quintessence of the Romantic piano tradition. Links are drawn between Chopin's creative impulse and his emotional fragility, lifelong battle with tuberculosis and sometimes fraught romantic relationships, including a notorious liaison with novelist George Sand. Included is illuminating commentary by pianist-performer Hershey Felder, who portrayed the composer in his one-man show, "Monsieur Chopin," at the Royal George Theatre here in 2005.
The audiences were good over the weekend – with some sell-outs
What was extremely pleasing was the crowd reaction to the film. I thought, while making this film, that Chopin was beginning to seem to me to be as popular as Mozart and Beethoven – and I now think it’s true. There’s something about a somewhat flawed character – or one with human weaknesses that we all share – that draws us to them and their art. Those creative giants that sit on their pedestals, stony as granite, don’t draw us in. It’s those who share the human weaknesses we all have and yet still produce extraordinary art, those are for many the most appealing. Van Gogh – who we are also making a film about – is another perfect example.
Anyway, I always love my visits to the great city of Chicago and I wish I could have escaped the iron claw of the endless emails I have to deal with more often so that I could have explored the wealth it contains. I did get to visit its Art Institute and also managed to run along its lake shore (so intelligently kept for public use when the city was being built). But this really is a monumentally busy moment for us and I was only just about able to deal with the dozens of emails I get every day. It wasn’t long before I was en route to Philadelphia to film at its Museum of Art (yes, the ‘Rocky’ steps!) for our forthcoming Impressionists film). It and the wonderful Barnes nearby are yet another two examples of great art American galleries. Our film on the Impressionists will be exploring why so much art ended up there, in Pittsburgh, Boston, New York, DC, LA, Cleveland, Atlanta, Dallas and so on. I interviewed a very articulate curator there called Jennifer Thompson – I really admire these curators who dedicate their lives to really understanding and caring for the art in their charge. Jenny’s interview will certainly help us get a deeper understanding of who the impressionists really were. We talked in front of a gorgeous painting of Poplars by Monet – it will be in the Philadelphia version of the show but is too fragile to travel to Paris or London.
There’s a nice story about the painting: Monet had to pay to stop them being cut down to be used as timber. He was desperate to paint them and the money offered did the trick (for a while at least).
After the interview and a quick dash to the Barnes I flew home to London and, after a crazy detour with my son to Manchester to see Man City crush Sheffield Wednesday 7-0, I caught an early morning train to Paris. The Musee du Luxembourg has started the hanging of its forthcoming exhibition (which is the backbone of our film) – they’ve never really said yes to a film like this before so it was with some sense of relief and accomplishment to be actually inside filming. One has to tread carefully around the unpacking and hanging of priceless artworks – but we’re used to it. The thrill of seeing paintings, that you’ve seen many times in books, suddenly before your eyes is magnificent. We were there the day the National Gallery was unpacking and hanging its works. I particularly love this one:
It was a strenuous day with all the equipment (for myself and good friend & colleague David Bickerstaff). (Note: don’t expect to find Parisian taxis in a hurry). We do, however, have some important footage now – as well as another curatorial interview with Sylvie Patry, a charming and articulate expert from the Musee d’Orsay. My colleague refused to let me spend all night doing emails and took me on a long walk – with a decent intake of red wine en route – through Paris. I’ll need to catch up on my sleep another time…(on trains no doubt).
Next day (Friday) was special: we began with a fascinating interview with the descendants of Paul Durand-Ruel. The story of the dealer behind the commercialisation of impressionism (at the end of the 19th century) is gripping. Equally gripping therefore was the opportunity to see his very stock books, account books, note books with the names of Manet, Monet, Pisarro, Cezanne and others all liberally dotted about. I love the history that emanates from contemporary objects and this was certainly one of those moments.
David and I then departed from central Paris and drove the short distance (but 90’ in traffic) to Auvers-sur-Oise. This town is rightly a pilgrimage centre for art lovers, especially those of Vincent van Gogh. Here one can visit the Café Ravoux and see the room in which he slept, painted and died. The café has been wonderfully cared for by an impressive Belgian entrepreneur and art-lover. It has been lovingly restored and boasts a classy restaurant now (highly recommended!). Everywhere there are traces of Van Gogh’s last two months. Around the town, one can see the locations of paintings (with facsimiles attached to posts), the house of Dr Gachet, the church Notre Dame d’Auvers and sadly the cemetery where Vincent and indeed his brother Theo lay side by side. Vincent shot himself on July 29th 1890.
Breakfast the next day was fun – sitting in the very café where Vincent sipped his own morning caffeine 124 years ago – and have a look at this photo below – do you recognise the painting that that coffee pot is from? Clue: it’s not a Van Gogh. Email us at email@example.com if you do. First correct answer gets a DVD from Season 1. Good luck. All I’ll say is that I was surprised to be able to hold it. (and while the owner is 100% sure of its veracity, we must remain a teeny bit sceptical I guess).
Rush, rush, rush: filming in Dr Gachet’s attic, the church grounds, by the river Oise, outside the town hall, inside the café… Quick salade et petite bierre then off back to Paris. Horrible re-introduction to urban life as one meets the traffic again. Urgh. But we make Gare du Nord with time to spare – at which point poor David heads off alone to London with 6 bags….and I head to Germany with 3.
First of all I travel the Thalys from Paris to Brussels in 80 minutes. And then Brussels to Cologne in a couple of hours. It’s really so easy – and cheaper too than our criminally over-priced British rail system. (I was, the other day, quoted over £200 / $330 for a two hour train ride from London to Manchester on Virgin Trains! No wonder Virgin boss Richard Branson boasts of his £3bn fortune – disgusting & it’s why so many still drive). Anyway on the efficient, friendly and cheaper Thalys I got to Koln (Cologne) bang on time and was in my hotel five minutes later.
The next day was all about filming some final scenes for CONCERTO – A BEETHOVEN JOURNEY. Leif Ove Andsnes is now embarked on his final stage of residencies. This is where he plays all 5 piano concertos in one location over a period of a few days. I can tell it’s hard – and Bonn was the first one – as he looked noticeably more tired and stressed than he did when I filmed him a month or so ago in Bergen. But you only have to watch one concert (in this case playing the 1st & 5th) to understand the effort he is putting in. Not just the performance but the travel, the CD signings, the dinners with executives and so on…. For my purposes I needed some footage of the 5th in particular and the concert as a whole. The Beethovenhalle, the orchestra and Leif Ove could not have been more helpful and it all went extremely well.
That just left Monday morning – and a very appropriate location to more or less finish the filming of CONCERTO – A BEETHOVEN JOURNEY. The Beethoven birthplace in Bonn.
I have been there before, of course for IN SEARCH OF BEETHOVEN but it’s an evocative and fascinating place to return to with a camera – especially as it was the first time Leif Ove had visited it – and he was given a detailed your with the director Michael Ladenburger. It will only be a short moment in the film but something was revealed that they only discovered a few months ago which is directly relevant to the concertos – so that was a stroke of real luck as I captured it on camera. It is something neither I nor Leif Ove knew and is directly relevant to Beethoven and his concertos. You, dear friends, will need to watch the film….
At that , I took my leave and headed for the final set of 4 train journeys that got me home by midnight. My feet ache, my back aches, my head aches but what a fascinating few days.