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What Cate Blanchett's 'Tar' gets right, and wrong about classical music / inews

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From beta-blockers to Beethoven, Todd Field’s character study unlocks an industry often left in the shadows

inews - Emily Bootle writes….There is an eternal question asked of workplace dramas: is this really what it’s like? From the women’s magazines of the early-2000s romantic comedies to the mid-century ad-glamour of Mad Men to the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll of the finance industry in The Wolf of Wall Street and more recently, the BBC’s Industry, viewers are given stylised insight into otherwise closed-off worlds.

As a journalist, I feel relatively well equipped to verify that real newsrooms are a lot less glamorous than the office of The Devil Wears Prada; I can also safely assume that most bankers haven’t snorted cocaine off Margot Robbie’s bare skin. Otherwise, it can be difficult to know what’s a product of artistic licence.

Todd Field’s classical music drama Tár, the story of a female conductor who becomes embroiled in sexual abuse allegations, focuses on an even more secretive industry: classical music. Does Field’s film, rich with sensuous detail, really capture what it’s like to work in a world that is often incredibly mysterious?

Field’s writing, and Cate Blanchett’s rendering, of the fictional conductor is sufficiently deft that a Google search of “Tár” yields the suggested question: “Is Lydia Tár a real person?”

The answer is no – as the very real conductor Marin Alsop would be at pains to point out, having told The Sunday Times she was personally offended by the choice to depict a female conductor as an abuser – but perhaps an equally interesting question is: could she be?

As Alsop’s success proves, Lydia Tár’s status as a global superstar is wholly plausible – although the film’s implication that it is noteworthy is also accurate. At the beginning of the film, Tár is interviewed by The New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik (playing himself), who asks about her opinion on gender equality in music. Tár says that there is “nothing to complain about” – that times have changed, and that enormous progress has been made.

Alice Farnham with four members of the Women Conductors programme at Sage Gateshead. (Photo: Royal Philharmonic Society)Alice Farnham, professional conductor and author with four members of the Women Conductors programme at Sage Gateshead (Photo: Royal Philharmonic Society)
“She’s a fictional character with a very flawed personality, so her views fit her narrative,” says Alice Farnham, professional conductor, and author of the new book In Good Hands: The Making of a Modern Conductor. “Things have massively improved, there’s no doubt about that, but there’s still nowhere near parity.”

Of conductors represented by British agents, 11.2 per cent are women, as of January 2023 – a figure that has doubled since 2017; while things are moving in the right direction, there is still a long way to go.

This is perhaps why the film has also caused ire in the classical community: given the extremely low prevalence of women in conducting, to make Lydia Tár an abuser could seem somewhat ungenerous.

Defenders of the film say it’s about power: classical music is not an industry that escaped #MeToo, and Tár’s portrayal of Lydia’s swift demise could be seen to reflect certain recent events.

In the film, Lydia’s former tutor references the case of Charles ­Dutoit, a conductor accused in December 2017 of multiple counts of inappropriate conduct between 1985 and 2010 (he denies the allegations). The Boston Symphony Orchestra, for whom Dutoit had guest-conducted, severed ties with him as a result (although Dutoit was back on the podium in Russia and Switzerland the following year).

One of the most talked-about scenes in the film is the masterclass at the prestigious New York conservatoire Juilliard, in which Lydia has an altercation with a “BIPOC [black, indigenous and people of colour] pangender” student named Max, who’s “not into” Bach – a fact that Lydia interprets to be due to his spending too much time on social media, and not enough time engaging with the score.