Friday, June 22 , 2018, 12:51 pm | Overcast with Haze 64º


Gerald Carpenter: Symphony to Underscore ‘The Red Violin’

François Girard.
François Girard. (Yves Lacombe)

In January, the Santa Barbara Symphony was to present a spectacular multimedia event: two screenings of François Girard's haunting 1998 motion picture, The Red Violin, with the symphony performing John Corigliano’s Oscar-winning score and the dazzling young Canadian violinist, Lara St. John, playing the solo passages played by Joshua Bell on the film's soundtrack.

Then came the rains, and many long-established schedules were washed away, the symphony's January concerts among them. At the time, the symphony announced it would perform the Red Violin program after the regular symphony season was concluded, and now it is making good on that promise.

The Santa Barbara Symphony, led by guest conductor Carolyn Kuan, with St. John as soloist, will screen The Red Violin and perform the score at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 16, and 3 p.m. Sunday, June 17, at the Granada Theatre, 1214 State St.

"We view these concerts as another small step toward reclaiming a semblance of normality for our community,” said the symphony's executive director Kevin A. Marvin.

“There’s something cathartic — exultant even — about returning to a program thought to be another casualty of the devastating mud flows in Montecito,” he said.

“And what a program it is: Lara St. John will remarkably recreate the demanding solo passages depicted on screen, in what amounts to a virtuosic two-hour concerto. We are very pleased to present this exciting pairing of film and live symphonic music," Marvin said.

The two feature films Girard directed and co-wrote with Don McKellar — Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Red Violin — take us further into the peculiar world inhabited by musicians than any other motion picture, fictional or documentary, is likely to do.

I have known many musicians, and in almost all cases, the differential in scale between the personality of the players and the music they play, is quite shocking. Either they are quirky recluses, like Gould, or deliberately bland and undemonstrative regular guys, like — to name the two greatest living practitioners of the art — Itzhak Perlman and Daniel Barenboim.
Girard doesn't lay waste his powers trying to solve the mystery of composers, but concerns himself only with the mysteries of performance, and how one artist can move us to tears and another, playing the same notes with equal dexterity, can leave us cold.
I think Girard would insist that a luthier, or violin-maker, is a kind of performer, not a kind of composer, and thus, the mystery to be pondered, if never solved, is how the instrument of one luthier, who uses the exact same materials and design as another fellow of the craft, sounds so much sweeter, more brilliant, than that fashioned by the other, even when both fiddles are played by the same musician.

The eponymous Red Violin of Girard's film is the last violin made by the (fictional) luthier Nicolò Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi) of Cremona. Bussotti, a master on the order of Stradivarius, Guarneri or Amati, completes the instrument in 1681.

The movie tracks the course of the violin over the next three centuries, as it passes through various owners in various cities — Cremona, Vienna, Oxford and Shanghai — until it fetches up in Montreal at an auction, in the 1990s.

As the Glenn Gould film attests, Girard is a brilliant miniaturist, and he gives us an incisive sketch of the musical culture of each city and period the fiddle passes through.

If you follow the film hoping mainly to find out why the violin is the color it is, you will probably guess the answer quite a ways before the end, and finish in a down mood.

If you just let yourself be carried along by the sweeping historical adventure (and Corigliano's great score), taking a sympathetic interest in the main characters as they pass by, enjoying the performances of the stellar international cast (Samuel L. Jackson gives one of his best), you will have a much better time.

As the Japanese proverb says: “It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.”

Tickets purchased for the originally scheduled concerts will be honored at these performances. Single tickets start at $29, and can be purchased from the Granada box office, 1214 State St., by phone at 805-899-2222, or online at

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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