Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This academy award-winning documentary is nothing less than superlative. In 1979, violinist
Isaac Stern was invited to China on a cultural visit, a monthlong trip to Beijing and
Shanghai. He performed, with a pianist who accompanied him, and observed the Chinese
students playing both their own traditional instruments, and western ones. The film dedicates
only a few minutes to travelogue-style views of the countryside. Some remarkable scenes
are shown inside the Peking Opera Company, where performers dancing with swords and
spears do some incredible things as impressive as anything in a martial-arts fiction film.
The soul and center of the documentary is the time spent watching Stern coach and
inspire the Chinese students, some of whom seem little older than tots, yet play with
intense professionalism. A consummate teacher, his task seems to be to inspire them to
stop being simply technical masters and to put their heart and emotion into their
playing. He asks one young violinist to sing, and she finds it difficult to do so - as
if the expression of the personal ego was something not encouraged or valued in her
culture. With a smile that would melt ice, Stern connects with every student
he encounters. American movies are full of phoney stories about 'inspirational' music
teachers - the magic of From Mao to Mozart is that you see the real thing
happening before your very eyes. Savant knows very little about music, but the
teachings of Stern that are presented here, especially his admonition that one must
have an intense desire to express oneself musically to be a musician, made
me understand more about the spirit of music than years of school 'music
From Mao to Mozart also tells some Chinese history, especially the Cultural
Revolution (1966-1976) that seems to be responsible for some of the older
students' self-repression. An aged violin master and maker talks about his
denunciation and imprisonment during that period, simply because he favored foreign music.
Every year we see clips of Oscar-nominated documentaries designed to find favor with
the liberal Academy. From Mao to Mozart transcends any such considerations.
It's truly a fine show. It is obviously also an excellent, excellent teaching tool.
The From Mao to Mozart DVD is a quality product. The (16mm?) image is always
bright and clear, making one wonder how they captured all those intimate musical
moments without intruding on the drama. Included on the disc are two additional
documentaries. The Gentlemen from Shanghai tells the full story of the man
imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, from this birth in 1907 through the
invasion by Japan all the way to the present, where he still plays and makes
violins at age 92. Another video docu is Musical Encounters, which will delight
those already familiar with From Mao to Mozart. It chronicles a return visit of
Stern to China twenty years after his first trip ('89?), with more teaching session,
concerts, and especially his reunion with some of the students from the original
film, all shown to be professional musicians and teachers. A credits note: one of
the cameramen on From Mao, Rik Knowland, photographed the musical
Cats that Savant just reviewed; and director-producer Murray Lerner, if
the IMDB is to believed, also produced Savant science fiction favorite
Rocketship X-M way back in 1950.
The best moment in the show is not musical: astonished (as are we) by a quintet of
dervishes in the Peking Opera Company doing amazing magic with swords and spears,
Isaac Stern says, "But they can't play Mozart."
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China rates:
Supplements: Two Additional docu films: Musical Encounters and The Gentlemen from Shanghai; Isaac Stern Biography
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 4, 2001
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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