Narrator: Elliott Forrest.
Legendary Catalan cellist, conductor and humanitarian Pablo Casals moved to Puerto Rico (his mother’s homeland) and began a music festival there in 1957, leading musical participants from the world over clamoring to perform under his benign leadership. Twenty years after his death, the Casals Festival continues, with the offerings of this year’s event sampled, ever so cautiously, in this first-time North American telecast.
Director Bob Bowker and his crew gather bits and pieces from several concerts for their collage: three fragments from Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” performed under David Shallon’s rather stiff leadership on a bad horn night; one movement from Schubert’s “Arpeggione” sonata, soberly delivered by Lithuanian cellist David Geringas; all of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, by Andre Watts and the visiting Lausanne Chamber Orchestra; and a frustrating truncation of Verdi’s eloquent Requiem, interpreted by assembled vocal forces under Poland’s progressive composer/conductor Krzysztof Penderecki.
Most of the camerawork is the standard symphonic stuff: closeups of fingers plucking strings and oboists’ puffed-up cheeks. In the Verdi, however, the scene turns artsy, as choristers intone their music while on a walking tour through Puerto Rican churches and cemeteries.
Despite the thrilled-with-it-all tone of narrator Elliott Forrest, the level of performance seldom honors the spirit of the festival’s noble founder. Watching Watts in his facial agonies, one might expect a comparable emotional outlay in his concerto performance; no such luck.
By far the most rewarding moments come with the interspersed black-and-white footage of Casals himself, playing Bach on his cello; conducting the same Beethoven concerto Watts performs here, but with the great Rudolph Serkin at the piano; exhorting students to forget about technique and concentrate on feeling.
Not much of that message comes through these days, alas, if this latter-day sampling is to be believed.