Hitting the right notes: Wendy Slick (left) directs Joanna Kline as Olga writing in her journal for Virtuoso: The Olga Samaraoff Story.

Wendy Slick's 'Virtuoso' Turn

Michael Fox February 9, 2010

Olga Samaroff, the path-breaking 20th-century concert pianist, critic and teacher with the exotic Russian name, was born Lucy Hickenlooper in San Antonio, Texas. You guessed it—she reinvented herself, out of necessity as much as ambition. “Olga was raised in a musical family, but at that time it was very difficult for a woman to be a musician,” says Wendy Slick, co-director with Donna S. Kline of Virtuoso: The Olga Samaroff Story. “And there was anti-Americanism. To be a classical musician you had to be European, and usually a male. [Women] could be teachers, but it wasn’t happening as much then that a woman would be a major concert artist. It was frowned upon.” The imposition of constraints on women was also a central theme in Slick’s last film (made with Emiko Omori), Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm, about the history of the vibrator. Now do we have your attention?

Virtuoso was initiated and spearheaded by Kline, a Tiburon music teacher and pianist who’s long been the keeper of Olga’s remarkable story. Kline wrote her thesis and later a book about Samaroff, but in recent years concluded that a film was the best way to reach beyond the coterie of pianists and musicologists who knew Samaroff’s impact and legacy. A window was closing, however, as the circle of people who knew Sameroff continually shrank. “Olga’s students were in their 80s, and it was kind of now or never,” Slick explains.

Kline assembled a crew of Stanford film students and went around the country taping interviews. When she determined that she needed an experienced filmmaker to raise the caliber of the piece, she contacted Gail Silva, the longtime director of the Film Arts Foundation and an astute consultant and producer, for a list of people to interview. Silva came up with nine names, including Slick’s.

“I had done a promo piece for what we’re calling Dead Forgotten Divas,” the raspy voiced Mill Valley filmmaker recalls with a laugh. “I showed Donna this little eight-minute piece about the 1800s opera star Pauline Viardot. The relevant part was I had to invent it, because there are maybe a few [photographs] but no moving pictures.”

The two women got on, and Kline recognized that historical documentaries required a certain kind of resourcefulness and creativity, so Slick got the gig. “Whether I was the best choice,” she says with a chuckle, “who knows? We’re so rich here in documentary filmmakers, she couldn’t have gone wrong.”

That’s a safe bet, but Slick made an instant and powerful connection with Samaroff. “She was brave, she was a pioneer, she just went after it, she wouldn’t say no,” Slick effuses. “She self-funded her debut at Carnegie Hall. I love these strong, plucky women and of course in Passion & Power there were tons of strong, great women.”

Along with Kline’s book, Slick drew on Olga’s massive 1939 memoir, An American Musician’s Story. “What was exciting to me as a filmmaker was here was Olga’s voice, and Olga was telling her own story,” Slick says. “I pulled Olga’s words to be the thread, and got an actress to be her voice to bring life to it.” The co-directors persuaded Bay Area-based opera star Friedrica (aka Flicka) von Stade to narrate the film, and shot two female pianists performing the pieces that Samaroff had played. And, yes, another crucial element made its way into the documentary.

“Olga was one of the first musicians to record, so she left music behind,” Slick notes. “They’re scratchy old recordings but I put them in the film.”

With any historical documentary, the challenge is making it relevant to the present. That proved to be unexpectedly (and unfortunately) easy with Passion & Power. “We went to the history of the vibrator, the stigma, and found that it is illegal to sell vibrators in seven states in this country, and found a Texas story,” Slick recalls.

“In this instance, it’s a kind of lost story. We do try to make it relevant in that we talk about blind auditions, where they put the player behind the screen and even take off their shoes so you can’t hear if they’re wearing high heels. [As a result,] in the ‘60s and ‘70s you started to see more women in orchestras. They took away the gender bias.” But Stamaroff had begun kicking down that wall decades earlier. “In reviews, they always said if she played like a man or a woman—and if they said she played like a woman, it wasn’t a compliment. She had a radio show and would ask listeners to guess if the pianists were male or female.”

Slick envisions Virtuoso: The Olga Samaraoff Story airing on either public television or The History Channel, with healthy prospects in the educational market. For more info, visit the film’s Web site:

Throughout the making of Virtuoso, Slick kept up with her various other film projects. Keep an eye out for the Slick-produced, Omori-directed Ed Hardy: Tattoo the World, a doc about the San Francisco proprietor of Tattoo City (who now has his name on clothing and wine). The film recently premiered in Hawaii, and the filmmakers are making some tweaks after seeing it with an audience.

Notes from the Underground
The Jewish Theatre San Francisco (formerly Traveling Jewish Theatre) received a $75,000 grant from the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for actor-writer Corey Fischer and filmmaker Sam Ball to produce In the Maze of Our Own Lives. The piece, according to the announcement, “will integrate a variety of cinematic elements with live theater to bring to life the powerfully resonant story of The Group Theater, a groundbreaking 1930s ensemble whose work redefined theater in America.” . . . . A 19-disc box set, Clint Eastwood: 35 Films, 35 Years at Warner Bros., hits stores Feb. 16. Yes, there are hours and hours of “special features.” The action hero-cum-director, who turns 80 on May 31, is currently shooting the Peter Morgan script Hereafter with Matt Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard in London, Maui and, last month, on Nob Hill. . . . The People vs. George Lucas , Alexandre O. Philippe ’s examination of the conflicted dynamic between the Star Wars creator and his fans over the past three decades, will have its world premiere at South by Southwest. . . . Peaches Christ’s All About Evil, covered last year in this space, will premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

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