In new film, actor Fry ponders his conflicted love affair with Wagner's music

Stephen Fry was all of 11 when his grandfather played him a recording of Richard Wagner's "Tannhauser" Overture. For the boy who grew up to become a distinguished British actor on stage, in television and film ("Wilde," "Gosford Park"), it proved to be a life-changing experience, releasing forces deep within, he says, such as he had not experienced before or since.

We learn this at the beginning of Patrick McGrady's 2010 documentary, "Wagner & Me." The film, which opens for a weeklong run Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, centers on Fry's lifelong attraction to the composer's music; but, as with many love affairs, adoration is mixed with deep inner conflict.

Fry states his dilemma succinctly: How can he, a Jew who lost family members in the Holocaust, reconcile his passion for the music of Wagner – history's most notoriously anti-Semitic composer – with the personal and political embrace of that music by Adolf Hitler, who also adored Wagner's works?

Fry decides he cannot begin to grapple with his quandary until he has made a pilgrimage to Bayreuth, in southern Germany, site of the Wagner Festival held annually in the famed Festival House, the theater Wagner designed and built as a shrine for his music dramas – also as a monument to his own greater glory.

So it is that in June 2009, just weeks before that year's festival is to open, the actor-narrator secures official permission to nose around the theater and its environs, check out rehearsals and speak with officials, before he joins the dressy throng attending the opening night. Fry shares his observations with the camera and in voiceovers liberally laced with Wagner's music.

For much of its length, the documentary plays like the travel diary of a lay music lover who's also an unremitting Wagner enthusiast. As McGrady's lens pans across the red brick façade of the theater perched atop Bayreuth's Green Hill, Fry declares, "For anyone who loves Wagner's music as much as I do, this place is Stratford-on-Avon, Mecca and Graceland all rolled into one."

He breaks into a kid-in-a-candy-store grin when he strays upon the eight Valkyries lustily trumpeting their cries of "ho-jo-to-ho!" during a rehearsal of Wagner's Die Walkure." He can barely contain his excitement as he mounts the podium in the theater's unique covered orchestra pit, resting on the same chair that, he observes wryly, "has hosted some of the greatest bottoms in classical music."

His search for musical insights takes him to Neuschwanstein, the storybook castle of Wagner's patron, Bavaria's "mad" King Ludwig II; also to the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, where conductor Valery Gergiev is rehearsing his own production of Wagner's massive "Ring" cycle.

Back in Bayreuth, Fry lobs softball questions at Eva Wagner-Pasquier, the composer's great-grand-daughter and festival co-director. He's curiously loath to press her as to how the festival plans to face up to its troubling connection to the Third Reich. A brief rehearsal snippet from Stefan Herheim's imaginative production of "Parsifal" suggests management is beginning to do so.

"Wagner & Me" takes on greater weight once Fry visits a decaying stadium in Nuremberg that used to house Hitler's infamous propaganda rallies. He confesses he cannot bring himself to walk out onto the high podium from which the Fuehrer addressed the assembled masses, even as he watches tourists doing so.

For a scene that might have worked better at the beginning, he travels to London to speak with a retired cellist, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, once an inmate in Auschwitz, the camp where members of Fry's family died. She was able to survive, we learn, because of her having been recruited into the inmates' orchestra. Fry in effect asks her permission for him to attend the Bayreuth Festival, but she avers that any such decision can only be his.

He leaves us with the conclusion that although Wagner's music is "a beautiful, extraordinarily complex tapestry that's been indelibly stained," for him that music is "bigger and better than Hitler ever imagined it to be," just as the Bayreuth Wagner Festival is redeemed by the "fundamental goodness and importance" of the music it enshrines. "I'm not prepared to surrender either of them to (Hitler)," Fry declares.

Even if you don't share his views, either in part or in their entirety, you should find much to ponder and learn from in "Wagner & Me." It's a minor contribution to the flood tide of Wagneriana the 2013 bicentenary celebration is about to unleash, but a contribution nonetheless. The film reminds us how tightly intertwined are the artistic, political, social, philosophical and moral issues that surround the most controversial genius classical music has ever known.

"Wagner & Me" opens Friday and runs through Dec. 6 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.; 312-846-2800, siskelfilmcenter.org. This film is unrated.

Sharps and flats

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Music Director Riccardo Muti's new book, "Verdi, L'Italiano," has just been released throughout Europe to coincide with the 2013 bicentennial of the composer's birth. The book, written in Italian and published by Rizzoli, examines Giuseppe Verdi's life and music, comparing his central importance to Italy's musical culture with Dante's in literature and Michelangelo's in art. The release date of the English translation is to be announced.

The Orion Ensemble continues its 20th anniversary season with music by operatic composers – Carl Maria von Weber's Clarinet Quintet in B flat, Verdi's String Quartet in E minor and a Liszt-Wagner transcription. Concerts take place at 3 p.m. Sunday in Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston; and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the PianoForte Salon, Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave.; 630-628-9591, orionensemble.org.

Dutch composer Michel van der Aa has won the 2013 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. The $100,000 prize, one of the largest in classical music, is for his "Up-close," a concerto for cello, string ensemble and video. The work was written for cellist Sol Gabetta on commission from the European Concert Hall Organization, and was premiered in Stockholm last year.

Christopher Bell, director of the Grant Park Chorus, has been awarded an honorary doctor of music degree from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow for his contributions to music in Scotland. He also serves as artistic director of the National Youth Choir of Scotland, which he founded.

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

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