Film shines light on journey of disabled Cleveland composer

By Donald Rosenberg
Plain Dealer Music Critic

Two tragedies inspired Cleveland composer Dennis Eberhard while he was writing the piano concerto he would call "Shadow of the Swan." One was the deaths of Russian sailors in the submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea in 2000; the other was the 1986 disaster of the space shuttle Challenger, its white smoke famously and horrifically evoking the image of an enormous swan.

The concerto became both a depiction of those catastrophes and a memorial to their victims. It also proved a personal odyssey for Eberhard, who turned physical hardship into artistic triumph when he traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, in November 2002 for the work's premiere and recording.

Eberhard's journey is depicted in Laura Paglin's documentary, "Shadow of the Swan - A Composer's Story," which will have its world premiere Sunday at the Cleveland Museum of Art. It is an engrossing and moving film, if, at 30 minutes, almost too short to convey the breadth of the composer's experience.

Yet Paglin does a crisp, sensitive job bringing narrative drama to her subject. We learn that Eberhard contracted polio at age 9 and later discovered the uplifting powers of music. He vowed to lead a self-sufficient life and pursue his art, however challenging his disability might be.

As vividly chronicled in the film, Eberhard's trip to Russia is fraught with frustration. As the composer is taken onto a plane in a wheelchair, the ventilator that helps him breathe at night slips from his lap. He doesn't know if it is broken until he arrives at his St. Petersburg hotel, where a technician eventually gets it to work.

Eberhard encounters obstacles, nevertheless. Most Russian buildings constructed more than a century ago remain inaccessible to the disabled. Halida Dinova, the Russian-born Cleveland pianist who travels to her homeland with Eberhard to appear as soloist in his concerto, puts her ironic finger on the plight when she notes that the word "invalid" signifies "not valid" in Russia.

Eberhard must be carried in a wheelchair up steep stairs to the concert hall where his concerto is rehearsed and performed.

Things don't become easy - though, in retrospect, some might be deemed funny - once the music begins. The first rehearsal of Eberhard's concerto is a disaster, the aggravated composer proclaims. Recording the piece, eventually released on the Naxos label, is an arduous process requiring seemingly endless takes. When Eberhard, with explosive energy, urges Dinova to bring more intensity to the solo part, she doesn't bat an eye: "Whatever you say. You wrote it."

But then the concerto begins to come together, its themes of death and resurrection portrayed in music of urgent power and poignancy. Family and friends of Kursk victims at the premiere weep during the concerto and pay tribute to the composer at the end.

"I thank you from the bottom of my heart," says an elderly woman, her words translated in English subtitles. "My son was a doctor on the submarine. He died. I kneel down before you in gratitude."

It is snowing in St. Petersburg as the composer finally hears a performance of the concerto he has filled with horror and empathy. What a shaken Eberhard appears to feel in his bones is an outpouring of Russian warmth.