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Movie Review

Insightful 'Winners' Follows Great Expectations to an End

April 09, 1999|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Juxtaposing historical footage with contemporary interviews, Paul Cohen's documentary "The Winners" works like a great Dostoevsky novel, plunging us into the hearts, minds and souls of four first-prize winners of the prestigious Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition in Brussels, none of whom, for various reasons, made major careers.

This is fairly straightforward documentary making--its great strength lies in Cohen's ability to get the musicians to talk honestly about themselves and their lives.

American violinist Berl Senofsky, who took top prize in 1955, may be the most content today. After winning his medal, Senofsky says that he realized he really didn't have good technique after all, or the stomach for making a career.

He abruptly withdrew from concert life to work on his playing. He is supremely resigned and philosophical about the way his life worked out, but still makes us understand the high standard he set and the price he's paid for it. He now teaches at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory.

Russian pianist Yevgeny Moguilevsky was not supposed to be the winner in 1964. Communist Party bosses already had designated another musician in the Soviet delegation as their choice that year. When Moguilevsky returned to the Soviet Union, he was not allowed out again, though he was able to play in that country.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain he has begun to make a career in the West, but he is noticeably uncomfortable with the marketing requirements set by his New York agent, who talks about his having lost nearly 30 precious years of exposure.

Violinist Mikhail Bezverkhny, the 1976 winner, was a devoted communist. But he abandoned the ideology and his country after years of fruitless efforts to convince the party powers that an international career would benefit the Soviet Union as well as himself. He, too, was not allowed out.

Now living in Brussels, he is surrounded by neighbors who hate classical music, and has to practice in an old van. He is shown becoming increasingly frustrated as he rehearses with his wife, pianist Olga Bezverkhnaya.

Most tragic and probably most talented of the four is the once broodingly handsome violinist Phillip Hirschhorn, who beat former classmate and friend Gidon Kremer to win first prize in 1967.

Kremer (who also appears in the film and talks about his friend) won third prize that year, but his career soared. Hirschhorn's was ended suddenly by the onset of a disease that he doesn't name, but which he suggests was cancer. (He died in 1996, just after this documentary was made.)

"Tragedy," Hirschhorn says, looking at a photo of himself and the other winners that year. "That guy knows that there is no happy end, no grand finale. Despair on a couple of faces. Really, a despair."

His playing of staggering beauty and his pithy, insightful remarks suggest the loss of a mind and talent that we can scarcely comprehend. The loss is close to unbearable.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: appropriate for all audiences but some vulgar language.

'The Winners'

Produced by VPRO/BRTN Television. Director Paul Cohen. Written by Paul Cohen and David van Tijn. Editor Ian Overweg. Distributed by First Run Features and Laemmle Theatres. With subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

Exclusively at Laemmle's Grande 4-plex, 345 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles. (213) 617-0268.

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