Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Isaac Stern's Journey from Mao to Mozart

As I mentioned in a previous post, I love watching documentaries on famous virtuoso violinists. Since I enjoyed "God's Fiddler" so much, I thought I'd check out an Academy Award winning documentary called From Mao to Mozart (1980). The documentary depicts Stern's visit to China in 1979, which was one of the first times that an American musician had visited and collaborated with the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra since the Communist revolution in 1949. The PRC's Foreign Minister had invited Isaac Stern to China in order to foster artistic exchange and build friendships between Chinese and American musicians.

From Mao to Mozart is a beautifully filmed, heartwarming movie about breaking down cultural and political barriers, and what people all over the world can learn from each other. It depicts China before it became a major industrial powerhouse, with gorgeous natural scenery and people riding bicycles in the fresh air. The movie interweaves scenes of Chinese music and Western music, inviting fascinating comparisons between two vastly different art forms. For example, it begins by showing an orchestra of erhu players (Chinese fiddle) playing "Oh Susanna." The exotic instruments give a familiar tune a whole new sound. Later, we see a rehearsal of the China Central Symphony Society (now the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra) with Isaac Stern playing Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 (in G Major). Stern's playing is immaculate, but he has to instruct the orchestra on how to bring passion and excitement to the music. In an interview after the rehearsal, Stern comments that the Chinese have an old-fashioned, technical approach to music. Yet, when the Americans visit the Peking Opera to see a rehearsal, the musicians and actors give a lively, energetic and virtuosic performance. Why then is are the orchestra musicians so underwhelming?

Stern discovers the reason when he visits the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. He conducts several masterclasses and hears many of the students perform (the young cellist depicted in the movie is Jian Wang). He notes that the younger generation of students, those around the ages of 9-10, are wonderfully talented, expressive musicians. But the students around 19-22 have not shown as much development. Wu Tin, the violin professor, explains that the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and ended in 1976, interrupted these students' training and dealt a terrible blow to the study of Western music in China. The Shanghai Conservatory was closed during that time, and people who studied or taught Western music were persecuted. In a haunting interview, Wu Tin describes how he was imprisoned in a closet near a septic tank for fourteen months, humiliated, and tortured for teaching violin. Ten other teachers committed suicide because they couldn't stand the horrible abuse they suffered. But Wu Tin ends on a happier note--he does not think that anything like that will happen again in China, because people are wiser now. Still, it's shocking to consider that not so long ago the Chinese Communists so savagely oppressed classical musicians, especially given the enormous amount of brilliant musicians China has produced since then.

In the final scenes, Isaac Stern explains that "music isn't black or white, but many colors, some even painters don't have," and that music and young people make the world a better place. It's those sentiments that make this film so powerful. It's a window into an amazing period of time, when China began to engage with the rest of the world. I think it's no accident that musicians were some of the first people to build bridges between the world's superpowers. From Mao to Mozart shows that music is a part of being human, a language we share with people across the globe.


  1. Great review!

    We're linking to your article for Murray Lerner Thursday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!