Bringing music to the world

Auckland-based Italian pianist Flavio Villani: To be able to convey the architecture ... of such...
Auckland-based Italian pianist Flavio Villani: To be able to convey the architecture ... of such a big piece, that is the real challenge.'' Photos supplied.

Former Dunedin, now Auckland-based, film-maker Rebecca Tansley's latest project celebrates a little known classical pianist, much of its resonance having to do with the man rather than the music, writes Shane Gilchrist.

Trust, dedication and respect, themes touched on in Crossing Rachmaninoff, a biopic about Auckland-based Italian pianist Flavio Villani, also had echoes in the film's genesis and production.

Director and co-producer Rebecca Tansley (48) believes friendship, too, played a key role in her depiction of Villani's journey from childhood tinkering to his performance of Rachmaninoff's celebrated and demanding Piano Concerto No 2 with a Calabrian orchestra late last year.

Crossing Rachmaninoff, which screens at the forthcoming Dunedin International Film Festival, has been an intensely personal project for both Tansley and her subject.

Having moved from Dunedin to Auckland five years ago, the writer, film-maker and former restaurateur (she operated Plato with her ex-partner) was seeking a piano teacher for her children.

Enter Villani, who has tutored for the past decade. Concert pianists, particularly those studying at university, still need to eat, after all.

''Both my daughters are singers and I needed an accompanist for them, so I phoned around and ended up talking to Flavio ... I got to know him better and learnt about his life.

''Then one night he came for dinner and mentioned he'd been invited to perform Rachmaninoff in Italy. I was a bit of a Philistine, so I googled Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No 2 and found out it was his vindication as a composer.

''Suddenly, something clicked in me and I thought this was a really cool story. That was only in August last year.''

Of course, thinking someone's life is a good yarn is one thing; getting them to agree to reveal often highly personal details is quite another. Luckily, Vallani liked the idea.

''Italians do like to talk,'' Tansley laughs.

''But my friendship with Flavio meant the film feels a bit more personal than it might have done. At first, he was a bit reluctant, saying he didn't think he was that big a deal. But I thought his abilities as a pianist were a bit beside the point.

''I did go into more detail about the importance of music, but it didn't go in the film because it wasn't really part of the story I wanted to tell,'' Tansley says.

''It was too wide-focus. But I do hope some of that filters through.

''Part of the film is about celebrating the bravery of people who choose to bring music to us.''

Thus Tansley explores Villani's motivations as much as his musicianship, detailing a singlemindedness (stubborn is a word used by members of his family) to pursue a career as a concert pianist.

For the record, Villani completed a bachelor of piano performance degree with Italian mentor Matteo Napoli at the Conservatory ''Giuseppe Martucci'' in Salerno in 2007, then a master's in piano performance (first class honours) at the University of Auckland in 2012 under the guidance of pianist Stephen De Pledge.

Napoli speaks of Villani's desire to immerse himself in the language of the piano and the joy that can bring, although he also describes it as a ''golden prison from which there is no escape'', intimating such a quest for perfection has its flipside: solitude, self-criticism and notions of self-esteem are touched on, as is Villani's relationship with his father, an ex-military man whose struggles with his son's homosexuality almost led to estrangement.

Tansley's independent film (she did receive some NZ Film Commission funding for post-production) wisely utilises a structure that, having bounced back and forth between Auckland and Italy and time frames spanning childhood tinkering to piano masterclasses, culminates in Vallani's performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No 2 with the Orchestra Filarmonica della Calabria.

Capturing that finale wasn't without its challenges, Tansley concedes.

''He was really nervous, which was hugely compounded by the fact we were filming him. We had this moment where he really didn't want the Go-Pro camera on the piano keyboard ... we had to make it as invisible as possible, so in the end I got a black pen and made the silver camera as inconspicuous as possible.

''I'm so pleased Flavio allowed us to do this as it provided some great footage.''

Reflecting on his performance, Villani (31) points out one of his greatest challenges was the ''historic expectation'' of a work as familiar as Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No 2.

''It's a piece that has been performed by the greatest pianists in the world.

''There are challenging parts, technical difficulties - I still watch with circumspection to the first page of the third movement - but all those can be learned with good technique and understanding.

But to be able to convey the phrasing and emotions, to be able to grasp the architecture and the journey of such a big piece, that is the real challenge.

''I wouldn't dare to say I found all that,'' Villani says.

''I still discover so much in that piece every time I go back to it. The concerto allows for a great deal of interpretation because of all the tempos, the ways you can deal with tensions and distensions of the musical material. It can be very different from performance to performance, and from performer to performer.''


See it

 Crossing Rachmaninoff screens at the Regent Theatre on August 7 and 8 as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival. It also screens at the St James Theatre, Gore, on August 16.



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