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Behind the music - Inside Out

Music from the Inside Out deconstructs Philly orchestra

The observation that "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture" has been put in the mouths of so many people — including Steve Martin and Elvis Costello — that it's all but impossible to know who first said it. The line remains such a popular refrain probably less for the playful pun than the notion that, as a means of expression, music resists being nailed down by words.

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Perhaps quixotically, the documentary Music from the Inside Out tries to better understand the art form by asking people to talk about it. Writer/director Daniel Anker interviews dozens of members of the Philadelphia Orchestra about their relationship to music, including how it feels, what it means and how a hundred people can come together to perform as one. By getting so many talented individuals to both discuss their art and perform it, Music from the Inside Out can be revelatory as well as frustrating. At times we'd rather hear more about the musicians' lives and less about abstract concepts.

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Subtitled "A Musical Essay," the film begins with the question "What is music?" and presents such amused, baffled replies as "What isn't music?" and "You want the short answer?" We catch brief glimpses of the musicians' lives — performing at the world's lavish concert halls, rehearsing in their street clothes — and generally, the Philadelphia Orchestra comes across as a passionate bunch without being high-brow stuffed shirts. We're most attracted by humanizing details that reveal how music changes their lives. Violinist Kimberly Fisher describes as a "badge of honor" the bruise-colored mark on her neck caused by years of playing her instrument.

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Their love of music frequently extends beyond classical and has roots in their childhood. Trombonist Nitzan Haroz talks about how the "danceable" rhythms of Latin music inspired him to moonlight once a week in a salsa club after performing that night's classical concert. Brothers Joe and Lou Lanza visit their working-class Italian home and tell touching anecdotes about their opera-loving father. (The film avoids the intriguing question of how a pair of brothers end up in the same orchestra.)

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At times, the musicians' ideas prove quirky and even contradictory. Many sing the praises of the ecstasy of performing as a group, but French horn player Adam Unsworth acknowledges that, jazz being his first love, he finds the lack of self-expression artistically frustrating. Violist and painter Judy Geist riffs on the notion that some sounds and melodies have colors and textures. After a chat about what separates music from simple noise, the film cuts to a morning outside China's Temple of Heaven, and the sounds of the bystanders attains a kind of rhythmic musicality.

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Occasionally Anker provides some fascinating personal histories. David Kim talks about how his mother, a pianist, essentially raised him to be a classical violinist, beginning with the small violin Santa Claus brought him at age 3. Just as we're recoiling at the image of an obsessive stage mother, Kim mentions that she died when he was 14. As an adult, Kim describes pursuing and falling short of his dream career as a soloist, and receiving an epiphany after seeing, of all things, Jerry Maguire.

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Ultimately you wish Music from the Inside Out had focused more closely on such interesting personalities as Kim or Israeli-born cellist Udi Bar-David, who talks about his collaborations with Palestinian musician Simon Shaheen. The film presents such a dizzying quantity of speakers that, especially in the final section, all the articulate, enthusiastic verbiage about the excitement of performance starts to run together, as if they're finding different words to say the same thing.

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Some of the film's most transcendent moments happen without a play-by-play commentary, like the time after a concert in Cologne, when at least 30 of the musicians gather outside a restaurant to respectfully listen to a street accordionist's virtuoso performance of "The Four Seasons." Anker's documentary is often most effective when the likes of Vivaldi and Schubert simply speak for themselves.