Photo Courtesy of Bertrand NormandThe conductor, much like a mad scientist, a bold and stern middle-aged Russian, instantly stops the entire orchestra to a complete silence, and zeros in for the attention from one. He looks directly into the eyes of a cellist during a frustrating rehearsal and demands “inspire the orchestra!”
This is a scene from French director Bertrand Normand’s Tchaikovsky On The Road documentary of a tour of the highly acclaimed Russian Mariinsky Theater’s orchestra lead by the great conductor, Valery Gergiev. Admirer of classical music or not, Normand’s film enlightens us of the remarkable orchestra’s passion, dedication and exhausting journey to numerous cities with nightly performances after a day filled with rehearsals.
"Maybe the most important thing that I have learned is what a conductor brings to a piece of music and how differently an orchestra can play according to the conductor, the venue, the mood,” explains Normand of his latest film. “It was amazing to hear each symphony of Tchaikovsky sound differently every day.”
Normand dedicated weeks of filming on tour with the orchestra from European cities such as Amsterdam, Brussels, and Cologne just to name a few. “When you can listen to the same piece of music over and over within a short period of time performed differently each time, a world opens to you, a world of variety, of nuances, of emotions, and you can’t help but compare, relate, be more attentive and more sensitive to the music.”
I’m highly impressed with Normand who graduated with a degree in Business Management but was aware it was not his calling. “I needed to do something I was passionate about,” he admits. “I did some acting for a few years, in short films and on stage, but I realized that I didn’t care much for the life of an actor and that my true means of expression was directing, meaning being behind the camera.”
Normand’s other impressive documentary Ballerina released in 2006 showcases five female dancers also from the Mariinsky Theater (commonly known as the Kirov). Even though his “dearest wish” is to direct feature films, Normand has worked on several documentaries. “It allows me to convey something truthful, although to some extent personal as well, to the audience,” elaborates Normand. "Before directing my own films, I have worked as an assistant on several films made by other directors,” Normand recalls. “The most memorable experience was on Russian Dolls, directed by Cédric Klapisch, with Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou.”
As for Tchaikovsky On The Road, “making that film has allowed me to better grasp what some call the ‘Russian soul’,” Normand reveals. “What distinguishes the Mariinsky orchestra from most Western orchestras is that it plays in a more emotional way.” Normand shows us how commendable conductor Gergiev “seems to go through great torments or ecstasy!” You see this in Gergiev’s eyes as he stands proud in front of his orchestra carrying on like a puppeteer. That is, if his eyes are open. Other times with eyes softly shut, Gergiev is lost in an apparent trance, almost as if he is now the one being manipulated by his symphony. His baton flutters like that of the wings of a hummingbird, while the other hand is directing another group of musicians to a different tempo.
I became completely fascinated with Gergiev in this film. He has this uncanny resemblance to Jack Nicholson, which might be due to that slight psychotic look about him; it’s that fine line some teeter on between genius and insanity. Gergiev at his podium, hair a tattered mess tosses beads of sweat onto his jacket; his melodramatic, full body gestures surely needed in leading the orchestra to its greatness.
Gergiev must be playing the part of a character from the symphony in his head as the music unravels. Through Normand’s eyes, we see and feel the maestro’s passion as he ignites the musicians to a most memorable performance. “Some of the musicians, and above all Gergiev himself, are certainly passionate about what they are doing,” describes Normand. “Observing them gives a lot of energy and a will to devote oneself to something one is passionate about.”
"Tchaikovsky is our daily bread,” explains French horn musician, Yuri Akimkin in the film. While on the road with the orchestra, Normand was able to make certain observations of this ensemble. “It was amazing to witness how an orchestra functions from inside, moreover a Russian orchestra.” He explains he was quick to befriend some of the younger band members and was able to tag along, wandering through some of the cities like Toulouse as seen in the film. “At first, there was a little bit of soviet mistrust from some of the older musicians,” jokes Normand. “Some of them thought we were kinds of spies eavesdropping them! Old habits!”
While some musicians are back home in St. Petersburg performing at the Mariinksy, “those taken on tour by Gergiev are supposed to be the best and most energetic ones, and young ones cope with tiredness better than old ones,” Normand rationalizes. “He forces each musician to share his emotions, and put their own into it,” describes one band member of Gergiev.
I learned something about the symphony I would have never known if it were not for Tchaikovsky On The Road and Normand’s talented vision. He takes us from musician, to spectator, and into the mind of a master conductor. In the end scene to Pathétique, the once tempestuous and vivacious maestro is now at an agonizing slow end, a death so to speak, eyes softly shut for the final time, and hands now asleep to the silence. Encore Bertrand Normand! Encore!
“Truly there would be reason to go mad were it not for music.” -Tchaikovsky
Visit BertrandNormand.com to learn more.
Ballerina directed by Normand
Klapisch with Romain Duris