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The Music Lovers

Oléo Films

Maestra (2023)

The first thing that happens in "Maestra," a documentary by Maggie Contreras following an international group of female orchestral conductors, is the sound of someone screaming in rage or agony or anguish over a black screen. A viewer primed by the film "Tár" for the psychodramas of the profession will suspect the person shrieking might be about to stab someone with a baton; but when the lights come up it turns out to be Mélisse Brunet, a modest and experienced French-born conductor guiding a young student through a spot of primal scream therapy. Ms. Brunet advises her pupil to "Wear what you want and do what you want" at the podium, the film's first approach to the expectations that can restrict female conductors, and the likelihood that they will be told to do neither of those things. The individuals followed by "Maestra" are diverse, talented and committed; but by the end you appreciate why Ms. Brunet's screams might be coming from the heart.

The film accompanies its subjects through the 2022 La Maestra competition, the only one in the world for female orchestral conductors and founded for that purpose as recently as 2020. The profession remains male dominated, statistically and temperamentally. Although judging a good conductor from a poor one is tricky enough for a passing observer, even those in the trade accept that masculine physicality and a performative grabbing of a piece of music by the bells are the qualities thought to convey a job done well. Other hurdles also accumulate for women, which the documentary gives them the space to explain. American Tamara Dworetz, visualizing her art while lying on the living room floor eyes closed like a Grand Prix driver imagining the track, wants to start a family but knows that pregnancy may stall career momentum permanently. In Athens, Zoe Zeniodi already has kids, eating into available time and resources; the children joust with Harry Potter wands modeling her baton, and watch Mickey Mouse in "Fantasia" for comparison with mom's job.

Once competition at La Maestra kicks off, "Maestra" settles into the genre of uplifting contest-based documentary, taking the opportunity to put compositions by Clara Schumann and Louise Farrenc on the same artistic level as ones by Maurice Ravel and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But by then the camera has also followed Ms. Brunet on her down-time wandering through the rehearsal rooms and corridors of the Philharmonie de Paris concert hall, where clearly ghosts are lurking. From the start of the film there have been hints of unhappy events during her youth as a music student in Paris, and participating in the competition requires Ms. Brunet to process the past and consent to it coalescing into a part of "Maestra's" narrative. She revisits her childhood home, where conductor's batons inserted long ago into the soil of plant pots as dowels are still there. Ms. Brunet says her unhappy experiences jolted her out of feeling French at all, her connection with the same soil severed involuntarily.

The traumas she is talking about are the ones ubiquitous and seemingly inevitable in male-dominated patriarchal walks of life, which is nearly all of them. The idea that taking control of huge emotional music at the front of hundred players in response is an act of therapy and self-analysis is a strong one and the film is happy to tackle it, although even in the rarefied air of La Maestra the advice to competitors from judges includes evergreens like "You should smile more." Ms. Brunet restrains herself from screaming again, but might have been tempted.


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