Ed Sullivan introduced a generation of TV babies to Aram Khachaturian's propulsive "Saber Dance," the musical backdrop to his show's popular plate-spinning act. Like German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, the subject of Istvan Szabo's TAKING SIDES (2003), Khachaturian had the misfortune to live in interesting times: His career spanned the idealistic birth of the Russian Revolution to its degeneration into Stalin's brutal and viciously fickle purges, and his involvement with the Soviet regime was complex and controversial. Documentarian Peter Rosen concludes that the composer tried to work from within a system of which he had high hopes that were later dashed; he spent his life and career trying to negotiate its contradictions and capricious cruelties, while the system callously exploited his work when it suited their purposes and degraded him when it didn't. Born in 1903 in Armenia, Khachaturian was the son of peasants, drawn passionately if without any great promise to music from the time he was a toddler. After the 1917 revolution, which held out the promise that all Russians would be afforded equal opportunities, Khachaturian moved to Moscow and in 1922 was accepted into the Gnesin Music Academy, despite his demonstrable lack of professional preparation. He studied cello and, more important, composition, progressing swiftly and drawing heavily on both Armenian folk music and Western classical traditions; the results were both sophisticated and accessible to listeners without specialized musical training. Khachaturian won the Stalin Prize in 1941 and joined the newly formed Union of Soviet Composers, rising to the rank of vice president of the Organizing Committee. His 1942 ballet "Gayane," whose score includes the "Sabre Dance," celebrated strength, unity and love of country and was rehearsed in a working munitions factory. But in 1948 he was brutally denounced, along with composers Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostokovich, for the sin of making "formalist" music that put aesthetics ahead of propaganda. Worse, he was branded "anti-people." His fortunes improved after Stalin's death in 1953, and his score for the ballet "Spartacus" a powerful denunciation of tyranny was awarded the Lenin Prize in 1959. Ultimately Khachaturian's career was tainted and his creativity truncated by the turbulent times he was forced to negotiate. Rosen attempts to provide a rounded picture of the composer's life and work through archival footage and voice-over readings by Eric Bogosian from Khachaturian's diaries and letters, but the man remains a less vivid presence than his music.
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- Released: 2002
- Rating: NR
- Review: Ed Sullivan introduced a generation of TV babies to Aram Khachaturian's propulsive "Saber Dance," the musical backdrop to his show's popular plate-spinning act. Like German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, the subject of Istvan Szabo's TAKING SIDES (2003), K… (more)