LA Times: Tár harms classical music

LA Times: Tár harms classical music


norman lebrecht

January 27, 2023

In the film industry’s morning paper, Mark Swed shreds the Todd Fields movie with rare savagery:

What “Tár” gets right comes out feeling wrong, and what it gets wrong is just plain wrong. Without an exalted level of music, it simply doesn’t work. This is what $35 million, the budget for the film, buys to create the Berlin of “Tár.” It so happens, however, that the price tag for the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, the magically enthralling space Frank Gehry designed for Daniel Barenboim’s inclusive West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, cost only a fractionally more 35 million Euros.

At one point in the film, Tár is awakened by her radio alarm. It is tuned to the classical station. She listens for a moment and recognizes that it is a performance by Michael Tilson Thomas, whose conducting she likens to “screaming like a porn star.”

That’s the last straw. Tilson Thomas’ recent L.A. Phil performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at Walt Disney Concert Hall was one of the all-time great and least self-serving Mahler performances. It was music-making as matter of life and death from a beloved conductor, who announced that he had a life-threatening brain tumor well over a year before the film was released. Even if Tár’s tasteless remark may have been meant to show us more about her than MTT (and there is no way to know what was intended in a film that delights in enigma), it exemplifies the film’s petty tone.

Read on here.




  • Tony Sanderson says:

    Well that was a stinker! I am seeing “Tár” on Saturday with some friends. With that and Norman’s review my expectation management has been suitably adjusted.

    There is a famous moment on film of Bernstein rehearsing Mahler’s fifth with the Vienna Philharmonic telling them, “This isn’t Mahler. You are playing the right notes, but this isn’t Mahler”. Maybe we should all watch that rehearsal instrad of “Tár”.

  • PS says:

    Okay now I have to buy it.

  • kh says:

    “Petty tone” describes Swed’s review quite well. He is not in a good position to criticize harm brought onto classical music. Has anyone in LA actually managed to finish one of his reviews and said to themselves, “Now I must spend $100 to find out exactly what got this moron so excited?” He must have turned away more potential listeners than he has attracted during his tenure (an absurd 26 years and still ongoing) as the chief music critic at LA Times.

    • The View from America says:


    • CarlD says:

      Gotta agree. Swed is pretty consistent in his praise of any and all that he writes about. Against that backdrop, this review can be seen for what it is: A brain-dead defense of the music establishment, even if it means trashing the film for a lot of Academy voters, who may not be musically knowledgeable and will assume he is right about its supposed missteps.

  • Clive says:

    “…it exemplifies the film’s petty tone.”

    Lol. The only pettiness I can see are the precious rantings of certain types in the classical music world who have the extraordinary ability to put their minutiae at the centre of the universe, oblivious to the fact that no one gives a rat’s what they think as long as it’s an entertaining film that makes money at the box office.

  • msc says:

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but will. So I can only say this seems to be a typical example of people taking what characters in a play, book, or movie say as somehow representing truth or the author’s views. The comment probably says more about the character than Fields.

  • Singeril says:

    I didn’t care for Swed’s tone either…sounds petty. And, I don’t know of anyone who would put the LA Phil in the top 5 in America. I have them as a solid 6th. There are many ways to “gauge” these rankings. LA is very good…but there are 5 “better” in my mind…and in my experience, most others.

    • CarlD says:

      Would love to hear your rankings, and those of others. For me, the LA Phil def makes the top 5, but I would put a couple others ahead of it that others might be surprised by. For now, lemme just say that Philly and Pgh. fall in that latter category.

      • Singeril says:

        Cleveland, Boston (interchangeable as to is #1), Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and then LA (with NY Phil, on a good day right up there as well).

        • CarlD says:

          Remarkably close to my own favorites, though a few of those I know only from recordings and I seem to be missing the Chicago gene.

    • Bedrich Sourcream says:

      Not above the Minnesota Orchestra, ever number 6.

  • Tony Sanderson says:

    Tickets selling well for this film at the Northampton FilmHouse here in Central England.

    It’s what the punters feel that counts in the end, not the critics.

  • Helen Kamioner says:

    Swed is brilliant, he always was ever since his days of writing for SevenDays Magazine in NYC

  • Alan says:

    Another idiot who thinks that the character and the conductor simply have to be one and the same.

    Laughable rubbish

  • nun says:

    1) Suffice it to say that Tar’s Oscar campaign is not going well.

    2) That being said, as flawed as Tar is as a classical music film, it is an infinitely better film than the leading Oscar contender, Everything Everywhere All At Once.

    3) There is a definite disconnect between professional film critics and the professional classical music critics, often from the same newspaper, reviewing Tar.

    4) Tar may not be a great film, but it is a watchable film; Everything Everywhere All At Once may be a great film, but it is not watchable.

  • Morgan says:

    Mark Swed! Was he not the critic who initially in 2011 criticized Yuja’s short dress at a Bowl concert–then in his follow-on comments after his critique became so misogynistic? Ah, that Mark Swed. Now he is film critic.

  • Bat says:

    Classical musicians making petty comments, about each other…never heard of such a thing.

  • Come on says:

    My word, the critics of this film are precious. Grow up, people – musicians and conductors in REAL LIFE make snide and critical remarks about a recording of x or a performance or style of y. And not just at 6am before they’ve had their morning coffee. All. The. Time.
    Besides, its a film – what makes it a strong film is that it doesn’t try to cutsey up its main character (who unsurprisingly, is not even meant to be likeable) in order to be a sugar-coated piece of propaganda to present the classical music world in a rose-tinted light filled with teddy bears and hugs.
    So it dares to show a not very nice character, and dares to show certain less than perfect elements of our world rather than just brushing them under the carpet and pretending they aren’t there – to that I say, bravo!

  • Bone says:

    The name of the film isn’t “Mahler;” the subject of the film isn’t music.
    How is this so difficult for viewers to understand?

  • Thumperdinck says:

    No one cares what the LA Times thinks. As for SlippeDisc, Just because you know about classical music, doesn’t mean you have anything of value to say regarding a film about classical music. In fact, you should be viewed as the least objective of anyone because of the conflict of interest. Tar is for film lovers. I delight in its enigma and it’s “tasteless, petty tone”. Thanks, Todd Field! Masterfully done!

  • Genius Repairman says:

    A fictitious conductor complaining about how a conductor conducts is called “characterisation” and has nothing to do with what the filmmakers actually think. A fictitious hitman complaining that the police are “pigs” is also characterisation and has nothing to do with what the filmmakers think either.

  • Curvy Honk Glove says:

    This diatribe is sure to keep audiences out of the movie theatres AND out of the concert halls. Nice work.

  • Terence says:

    The many negative remarks about Tar reinforce the impression that classical music is elitist and snobby.

    The remarks may well be valid but most people are not musical insiders.

    Best perhaps to consider Tar as being about a particular personality and the film has having only a tangential relationship to orchestras and music.

    (I wish the line about MTT had been cut though.)

  • RJ says:

    So many comments on the LAT review by people who haven’t even seen the film. Geniuses!

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    “T’wer to consider too curiously to consider so” (Hamlet).

  • trumpetherald says:

    Mr.Sved certainly is right about MTT here.

  • Si says:

    Sounds like a pretty accurate portrayal of a$%hole conductors/artistic directors/legion of administrators that suck the humanity, joy, and funds from the industry.

  • Paul says:

    Ugh. Mark Swed is so typical of small minds poisoned with righteousness: the whole point of good drama is to showcase conflict, through the use of complicated characters who say lovely things and awful things (like normal people). This stupid cultural battle is the ultimate illiberalism. Let drama be drama. Storytelling isn’t a damn code of regulations!

  • soavemusica says:

    “Screaming like a porn star”…

    Look who`s talking. Which Hollywoke film isn`t?

    I have had many laughs thanks to this film, which I never intend to see.

    The political speeches the champagne-socialists will give at the Oscar gala would be most amusing – if anyone still watched that show.

    The most famous logo of the industry has been musically reinvented:

  • High-Note says:

    Oh yeah – Tar harms classical music just like Gone with the Wind harms the cotton industry and Sister Act harms convent enrollment.

  • Bedrich Sourcream says:

    I have zero desire to ever see this movie, let alone most female “conductors.” Men have to be exceptional to become conductors, but now, just about any woman who feels like it can get trained and get some job. Bringing down the profession.

  • IP says:

    I haven’t seen the film but Alsop’s reaction reeks so strongly of “two legs bad four legs good” that I am getting kind of sympathetic to it, in absentia.

  • Byrwec Ellison says:

    critic – n., a person who wears thin skin while saying or writing things that must be taken with thick skin

  • M says:

    Sadly, Mark Swed has lost credibility in the realm of objective writing.

    Like clockwork, week-in and week-out he spends intermissions of LA Phil concerts hobnobbing gratuitously and shamelessly with orchestra leadership in the aisles of Disney Hall. This has been the case for decades now.

    It’s no surprise, therefore, to find consistently positive and vacuous reviews and blind plaudits for the orchestra’s work. The paper needs a new voice that can bring an insight and objectivity to its classical music coverage with sufficient distance from the orchestra. Instead, what we do get is a fanboy in sheep’s clothing.

  • Sea Mint says:

    Classical music simply don’t deserve broad societal appeal if this is our response to this kind of film.

    I often wonder if some people are drawn to this industry because they can be sanctimonious. “You just don’t get it.”

    Just get people interested and let them see if they might be interested in going deeper. A great film with a huge platform doesn’t get industry details right? It doesn’t matter. Most people go all year without even thinking about their local symphony orchestra. Just be in their field of view!

  • MacroV says:

    I had to quit after about five minutes. Just the New Yorker Festival interview at the beginning – talking about Mahler 5 as the culmination of a cycle with the Berlin Phil after she’d apparently done with with most of the Big 5 bands – was ponderous and annoying.

    Maybe classical music is just not easily fictionalized.