‘Talent’ intrigues in portrait of cellist Paul Katz, students
Only a master documentarian can show a master teacher at work.
In “Talent Has Hunger,” an unsentimental, pitch-perfect film, Oscar-nominated director Josh Aronson does that and more: He makes us care about the lives of four gifted cello students over a seven-year period in Paul Katz’s studio at the New England Conservatory in Boston.
“Talent Has Hunger,” which opens at Laemmle Theatres for a two-day special engagement on Aug. 29, features young Lev, whom Katz calls “a raw prodigy” in the film. Lev comes from a biracial family (his mother is American-Jewish; his father is a cardiologist from Tanzania) and has been taking cello lessons since age 3. When filming began, Lev was 10 and Katz was 67.
There’s also Sebastian, a “wanderer” who is uncertain of where his talent will take him, and Emileigh, who discovers a powerful gift for teaching and inspiring others. Lastly, there’s Nick, who has what Katz calls a “hunger” driving him toward a solo or symphony orchestra career.
Katz, a Los Angeles native who attended Compton High School, served as cellist for the renowned Cleveland Quartet for 26 years. His former students include Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey and Robert deMaine, principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who plans to attend the Aug. 29 show at the Ahrya Fine Arts theater on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, joining Katz and several other former students in a post-screening discussion.
For Aronson, who was nominated for an Academy Award for “Sound and Fury” (2000) and who directed “Orchestra of Exiles” (2012), about the founding of what would become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, “Talent Has Hunger” is about more than mastering the art of cello playing. It’s about the struggle for identity.
“I’m looking for a search for identity in my characters,” Aronson said by phone from New York. “I’m interested in who we are and how we find ourselves. With musicians, it’s a calling.”
Indeed, it’s a very tough, demanding calling. At one point in the documentary, Katz listens to Sebastian in class and says what’s strong about his performance, then adds frankly, “I wasn’t actually that crazy about your cello playing. It doesn’t really feel polished. I don’t feel you’ve got control of the bow or the sound.”
Such a public display of tough love before Aronson’s camera surprised Katz.
“That’s the most amazing part of the movie,” Katz said by phone from the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. “Josh knows how to make people comfortable. He lets people who are passionate about something talk about their passion. I became so immersed with the students, I almost wasn’t aware of the camera.”
But Katz, who said he didn’t see the Sebastian scene until five years after it was filmed, felt “stunned” by its honesty. His first thought was to protect his students.
“Josh had creative control, but I had two rights,” Katz said. “I could veto anything that didn’t reflect my educational philosophy, or anything I thought was detrimental to my students. When I saw the movie, I relaxed. Everybody was articulate. He captured everybody being themselves.”
“Talent Has Hunger” remains so disciplined in its focus that even when a charismatic Wispelwey visits Katz’s studio for a master class, Aronson’s camera stays on the students. Remarkably natural and unselfconscious, the students also seem to forget about the camera. Aronson said this was achieved by being “very patient” and spending a significant amount of time with the musicians.
“They got to know me,” said Aronson, who is an amateur pianist married to professional violinist Maria Bachmann. “I wasn’t threatening. The trick is to become like wallpaper — I hope beloved wallpaper.”
For Katz, one of the more difficult questions “Talent Has Hunger” poses is whether creativity can be taught. “How do we teach it and pass it on?” Katz asks at the beginning of the film. “What’s the best way to develop an artist?”
Katz said all of his students somehow come out sounding different. “You have to give them permission to show what they feel,” Katz said, “how to develop and project mood and character. I love to teach that. I don’t want students to play for my validation, and I don’t want them walking onstage thinking of pleasing everybody.”
The cellist’s own mentors include Gregor Piatigorsky, Leonard Rose, Bernard Greenhouse (cellist for the Beaux Arts Trio), and the Hungarian-American János Starker. Greenhouse and Starker make memorable appearances in the film.
“Starker was a terrifying, intimidating presence in my life, but he was also a doctor for what ailed you,” Katz said. “He could look at your hands and show you how to fix problems, how to be physically comfortable. He developed the virtuoso side of your playing.”
Katz said one scene in “Talent Has Hunger” gave him goosebumps. “It’s when Josh shows Emileigh teaching her students in Project STEP [a string program in Boston for minorities]. She’s such a motivational force. I think she’ll change lives.”
Added Katz: “If I didn’t become a musician, I might have become a social worker. My father wanted to become a musician, but his parents said no. His talent had hunger, but it was never fulfilled. My sister and I saved up and bought him an oboe. In his 50s, he started playing for the Compton Civic Symphony [and with other orchestras].”
At one point in the interview, Katz asked, “How do we know our passions? What leads us?” Perhaps for both Katz and Aronson, Judaism provided a strong cultural backbone to their careers. “Though not exclusively, the way we value culture, the pursuit of excellence and achievement, are Jewish values,” Katz said.
Aronson, who is on tour for his new book, “Orchestra of Exiles,” co-written with Denise George, said he wanted to flesh out the story of the Israel Philharmonic’s founding. But for now, “Talent Has Hunger” is in the spotlight.
“I wanted to give viewers a front-row seat with a master teacher,” Aronson said. “Concert-goers can take musicians for granted, but it takes a lifetime of work for them to get there. My hope is that people will never see a concert in the same way again.”