“Music is not black and white. It is every color — and even some that painters don’t have.”
Virtuoso violinist Isaac Stern travels through China three years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, giving concerts and master classes.
This Oscar-winning documentary chronicles the first collaboration between an American musician and the China Central Symphony Society (now known as the China National Symphony Orchestra) — a historical moment perhaps not fully appreciated today, when U.S. relations between China are strained but ongoing, and we have seen countless Chinese musicians embarking on international careers. In 1979, however, when Stern visited Peking and Shanghai, he saw young students just emerging from years of cultural repression, playing “western” classical music with immense technical skill and passion but without personal ownership or deep insight into the music itself. While there’s an inevitable sense throughout the film of a white male Westerner coming to China to “fix” Asians’ musical sensibility (and, in one case, force them to provide him and his accompanist with a more suitable piano!), this is thankfully moderated by several factors, including Stern’s irrepressible, toothy enthusiasm and talent; stunning footage of highly gifted young musicians; and a powerful strand of cultural context and history woven into the narrative, primarily through a moving interview with violin maker Tan Shuzhen (who survived the Cultural Revolution).
Note: Interested viewers should definitely watch the half-hour follow-up documentary (included on the DVD) in which Stern returns to Beijing 20 years later and we’re privy to interviews with many of the young musicians profiled in the film. It’s interesting to see that Stern became a bit more crotchety and impatient in his later years, though he conceded that Chinese musicians had become much more proficient since his last visit.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Isaac Stern’s enjoyable presence and musicality
- An uplifting tale of cultural connection after years of division
- Tan Shuzhen’s story of surviving the Cultural Revolution
- Chinese children playing with passion and immense skill
Yes, as an uplifting and enjoyable Oscar-winner.