Sunday, June 07, 2009

Weekend Child

Sam Shirakawa took a break from opera-going to attend the Berlin premiere of a new documentary about Otmar Suitner (this film was shown in at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York City in November 2007 as part of the Berlin in Lights festival):

NACH DER MUSIK (English Title: A Father's Music) [105 mins]
A Documentary on Otmar Suitner by Igor Heitzmann
Premiere: Berlin 17 May
2009

Few are the documentaries about musicians that reveal more about their subjects than their audiences already know -- or should know. Little and much is known about the Austrian conductor Otmar Suitner (pronounced Sweet-ner), who is now 87 years old. Little besides the chronological facts is known about him professionally and personally, primarily because he spent most of his career behind the Iron Curtain, making only periodic guest appearances in the West and Far East. A lot, though, is known about him musically through his huge output of recordings on Communist-backed labels and Japanese imports.

The release of a documentary entitled Nach der Musik is remarkable, because it opens the door -- just a crack-- on a man and musician, who coulda-woulda-shoulda become a Titan among conductors in the second half of the twentieth century. And didn't. But the want of giga-stardom seems of no concern to Suitner. Nor does it worry film maker Igor Heitzmann, possibly because of his relationship to his film's subject:

Heitzmann is Suitner's son out of wedlock.

As Music Director of East Berlin's Staatsoper (1964-1989) and a privileged citizen of the Communist Block, Suitner was pretty much free to shuttle between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. What started off as a regular break from the bleakness of Bebelplatz became a regular necessity after he began an extra-marital relationship with a woman living in West Berlin. She eventually bore Suitner a son-- Igor -- a "Weekend Child" as such progeny were then called. Suitner's (recently deceased) wife discloses that she knew about both the relationship and the child, but she never sought to leave him. A telling glance, gesture, and inflection here and there conspire to obviate the necessity for explanation: there could be no other man for her. The same can be said for why Heitzmann's mother, who also appears in the film, remained single.

Heitzmann reportedly spent four years on the project, much of it, I imagine, chasing down archive performances and news clips. He disperses them generously throughout what emerges as an engrossing labor of love -- as rich in subtle detail as it is thoughtful in design. Heitzmann is indeed his father's son. And here is where Nach der Musik forks away from most other music documentaries: We get a cumulative sense of the ineffable human impulse that sparks the inexplicable musical impulse. Sometimes a book or an article can convey that sense, but only a film or video can (with lucky timing) capture it with that's-it! that's-it! immediacy. Heitzmann lucks out frequently.

Suitner all but disappeared from the musical scene shortly before the Wall crumbled in 1989. Many assumed the Stasi or some other evil had caught up with him. Indeed: Parkinson's. Suitner says he quit because he considered the disease unsightly, even though he acknowledges that some other well-known conductors (past and present) have persevered despite their afflictions. But his reasoning proves disingenuous when, in a revealing sequence, he conducts a portion of his favorite symphony (I won't name it) at a recent reunion with his former colleagues at the Staatsoper. A wonderful performance, profound in its simplicity. I suspect it wasn't embarassment that prompted his withdrawal from the podium; it was abrogation of will.

Suitner attended the premiere two weeks ago at Berlin's fabled art-deco cinema, Babylon. We spoke briefly, and he seemed agreeable to a lengthier conversation soon. I hope he keeps his word.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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