Crude narcissism smothers TV doco on NZSO tour

The NZSO on tour – documentary on Prime television

Sunday evening, 31 July

I found the TV film on the NZSO’s 2010 Europe tour a total embarrassment.

Some may think that the only way to make a watchable documentary is to lace it with
sex and crudeness. I differ.

Today’s permissive climate, when it isn’t cool to harbour behaviour standards known in
former times as decent, cultivated or civilized, makes it hard for anyone to say something is offensive, tasteless and inappropriate; but here goes.

As producer and front man, Jeremy Wells (I reveal my avoidance of television: I’d never heard of him) exhibited the worst kind of ‘Kiwi’ arrogance-cum-inferiority complex, all made the more offensive by his narcissism, his inability to keep his own discreet distance from his subjects, keeping the focus on them in a courteous way.

Instead, he insisted on being centre stage.

The whole project struck me as misguided. An attempt to engage the ‘masses’ through dumbing down, not just by avoiding too much talk about the music or avoiding letting musicians (other than a nice chat with Hilary Hahn) speak with any substance about their trade, but by stooping to the grubby depths of incessant sexual references and questions.

I do not believe that such behaviour wins friends from any quarter: it repels the ordinary music lover and probably somewhat surprises and leaves bemused those who don’t know or care anyway.

Wells’s attempt to talk to Dame Kiri epitomized his egotism, his self-centred unsuitability, even incompetence in the role of interviewer. After managing to offend her by his rudely casual, impertinent, ill-prepared questions, he displayed his over-weening ego by leaving in the edited film the clear signs of her astonishment at being addressed in such an inappropriate manner by a young, inexperienced, ill-informed, smart-alec adolescent who was more intent on keeping himself in the frame (aurally speaking) than asking her thoughtful questions that might elicit interesting replies.

She had no choice other than to bat questions away on things she could not comment on. She attempted to open a subject on which she might talk: classical music’s and the NZSO’s invisibility on New Zealand television as one of the reasons for declining knowledge of and interest in classical music, but the interview was rudely broken off – by him or by her was not clear. His self-absorption then allowed him to tell us that she had it wrong and that it was the result of the recession.

I have never seen such an inappropriate, rude interview of a person who is one of the most famous New Zealanders internationally. Was Kiri’s clear discomfort any surprise, given Wells’s appalling behaviour? The scope to elicit interesting comment was huge; just one: the importance of a tour like this for the orchestra’s standing back home, and asking her to recall her singing with the orchestra at the Seville EXPO in 1992.

The man exhibited an adolescent obsession with sex and scatological matters that were mesmerizing in their offensiveness and clumsiness. And he seemed oblivious to the clear discomfort, of his subject’s sense of the irrelevance and stupidity of his approach.

He asked harpist Carolyn Mills whether she’d thought about staging a naked harpist routine; he discomfitted trombonist David Bremner by linking the practising of music at speed with performing sexual activites fast or slow. He was childishly curious about the musicians’ bladder and bowel behaviour during performances, his camera hovering in the precincts of the toilets as players came in and out.

He astonished the in-house doctor at one of the concert halls by asking how she would handle an accident that involved a violinist severing his testicle.

He asked the orchestra’s physiotherapist whether she got propositions from players to
engage in sexual style massage.

He asked about injunctions from management about sexual activities before concerts, as rumour suggests applies to sports-people.

It all seemed directed at an audience of smutty-minded defectives, poos-and-wees infants, the ignorant and stupid.

In line with his obsession with keeping attention on himself, he staged a stupid episode on the lake front at Lucerne, starting a comment about the city’s history which was repeatedly interrupted by traffic and street noise: not three times, not four times, but more like six or eight times. But he offered almost no commentary otherwise on places visited.

The Shanghai episode, however, showing Chinese camera-culture and the unusual behaviour of the concert audience was telling and amusing.

He failed to engage any of the players in normal, friendly discussion that might have given any viewers without great interest in classical music, a sympathetic insight into their training, their work, and in the way they felt about music.

In Vienna’s Musikverein he spoke cursorily to one of the few players from Germany itself, Norbert Heuser, without any attempt to elicit comment about the German musical scene; for example, about the huge numbers of orchestras and opera companies, all heavily supported by central, provincial or local government.

His entire performance was summed up as he took upon himself the role of the conductor, leaving his dressing room, preening himself before all the many mirrors that lined the walls through passageways to the stage. It seemed to be far more an enactment of his own narcissistic nature than that of the quietly unassuming Pietari Inkinen.

Though Wells managed to pronounce foreign words and names well enough and didn’t show undue ignorance of music, his whole demeanour seemed to speak of insecurity, of an attempt to impose his own big personality over those of the players, to belittle them: people whose lives revolve round ‘classical music for god’s sake’; and to invite his TV audience to share in his own slightly scornful manner in dealing with people whose skills and knowledge in a major artistic sphere far exceeded his own.

Yes, there were interesting shots of concert halls, inside and out but there was little attempt to flesh out the experience with background on the cities and their history in a few lines, other than the ridiculous stunt at Lucerne: he’d have done better to mention the famous Cultural Centre at Lucerne designed by Jean Nouvel, where the concert was held.  Though he did allow the backgound of Geneva’s Victoria Hall (because of the British connection I suppose).

Generally, the camera work seemed listless and unimaginative, lacking much zest
or curiosity.

Assuming that the orchestra management had little indication before the tour began of the way producer Jeremy Wells planned to operate, I find it extraordinary that once the man had started, and engaged in these scabrous, prurient, unworthy interviews with orchestra members, a decision wasn’t taken to send him home.