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Crossing Rachmaninoff scores standing ovation

The premiere of Rebecca Tansley’s Crossing Rachmaninoff (fka Concerto) on Saturday drew a number of standing ovations, both for the film itself and for subject Flavio Villani’s performance that opened the Q&A session in the Civic’s Wintergarden.

Simon Raby

Italian camera operator Domenico di Ruocco (left) and Simon Raby shooting Crossing Rachmaninoff

The film is the story of would-be concert pianist Flavio Villani’s journey to his first performance as a soloist with an orchestra, playing Rachmaninoff’s Concerto for Piano No. 2 – meoldies from which will be familiar to many, even if the piece’s title isn’t. While the subject matter may be highbrow, Tansley’s film is highly accesible. The audience for the premiere was, predictably, an arty one even by NZIFF standards, sporting more silk scarves than Smith & Caughey’s.

Tansley, whose short eden played the NZIFF in 2009, suggested during the Q&A the film finally justified the Masters degree in Italian she’d acquired 25 years ago. She spoke of the journey towards making the film, some of which ground she also covered in an interview with SCREENZ last December, just ahead of the trip to Italy which provides the film’s climax.

Like many journeys, a certain amount of serendipity was required to bring Villani and Tansley together – a good amount of which was in the person of Villani’s mentor and teacher in Italy Matteo Napoli. Now resident here, Napoli encouraged Villani to come to New Zealand when Villani was working in Spain and trying to make decisions about his future.

“How do you feel now?” was an early question in the Q&A.

“Speechless,” said Villani after a short pause, before referencing a comment Napoli had made during Villani’s preparations for his trip to Italy: “I can still see the 200 things that could be better.”

Villani acknowledged his own need for endorsement and validation, observing that when he’d asked his Auckland Uni tutor their opinion of his abilities, the response was, “Why would anyone play the piano?”

Other supportive advice included the suggestion that one’s first time playing as soloist with an orchestra was “something that should be learned in private” – and not be the focus of a documentary.

That boat had already sailed, although Villani admitted to sending a number of late night texts to Tansley saying he didn’t think he could go ahead with playing with an orchestra before an audience, let alone while being tracked by a camera crew.

When Villani first shared the invitiation he’d received to return to Italy to perform, she googled Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2. She learned about its importance to the composer, its reception restoring his confidence after the far less pleasant reception that greeted his previous symphony. Much of the composer’s reputation and popularity stems from the Concerto.

Given the challenges from family Villani had faced in moving towards becoming a professional musician, some of which related to family members’ attitudes towards his homosexuality, a piece of mussic that had offered redemption for its composer seemed an appropriate choice to build some bridges for Villani.

Flavio Villani

Flavio Villani

At its heart, Crossing Rachmaninoff is a story about overcoming challenges. For Villani, the professional challenges of playing a difficult piece with an orchestra and the personal challenges of returning to Italy and to a home he’d left with €200 from his father and an instruction not to return.

Villani can do a good tortured artist when required, but overall the film is layered with humanity and humour which offset the more serious elements of the story without diminishing their impact.

When the concert to which the film builds takes place, the c20-minute third movement of the Concerto screens in full. It’s a brave choice, and was rewarded with enthusiastic applause during Saturday’s screening.

Simon Raby’s cinematography is sympathetic and enjoyable. Raby has been the cinematographer of choice for a variety of music-heavy films, in recent years including documentary Elgar’s Enigma, Toa Fraser’s Giselle and Jason Lei Howden’s rather less classical Deathgasm, which will have its NZ premiere in the NZIFF on Friday (24 July).


Almost home: Vietri sul Mare

Taking nothing away from Raby’s work on Crossing Rachmaninoff, it’s fair to note that once the action moves to Italy, the environment does its share of the lifting, offering up some stunning landscapes and equally impressive architecture to complement the musical constructions.

As post production supervisor Craig Parkes noted, the film has benefitted from its time at Park Road Post. There aren’t many post facilities in the country with a big enough theatre to do justice to a full orchestra, and the results of that work were evident in the Civic.

The ability to deliver such impressive orchestral sound stems from the sound recording, by Mike Westgate. A veteran of over 60 documentaries plus features including The World’s Fastest Indian and Mr Pip, Westgate recorded the music performances for Crossing Rachmaninoff on his Soundfield SPS-200 microphone.

Tansley also paid tribute to editor Thomas Gleeson, who she said took the project “from footage to film in 10 weeks”. is an editor and filmmaker from Auckland. A regular editor of factual content, he’s worked for the BBC, Discovery US and National Geographic among others. In 2012, his own doco short Home won the NZIFF’s Friends of the Civic Short Film Award in the NZ’s Best competition.

Crossing Rachmaninoff screens again in Auckland tomorrow (Tuesday 21) and is confirmed for NZIFF screenings in Wellington.

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