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NEC teacher celebrated in documentary at MFA

Young cellist Lev Mamuya performs at a recital.First Run Pictures

Josh Aronson’s “Talent Has Hunger,” an illuminating celebration of music and the art of teaching, comes at a time when both art and teaching are held in low esteem. A profile of New England Conservatory of Music master cello teacher Paul Katz and his relationship with four of his young students over the course of seven years, it scintillates like Ethan Hawkes’s underappreciated documentary, “Seymour: An Introduction” (2014), and engrosses with its coming-of-age drama like a musical “Hoop Dreams” (1994).

Watching Lev Mamuya, 10, taking his first stab at Dvorak’s Cello Concerto on an instrument nearly as big as himself should dispel any doubts about the power of music and pedagogy. “This might be a mistake,” says Katz beforehand, but when Mamuya finishes his passage, Katz is impressed by the raw intuitiveness of the performance. Then he begins the long process of refining Mamuya’s craft so that he can find his voice.


The older students present different challenges. Sebastian Baverstam admittedly lacks the commitment needed to fulfill his exceptional talent — four hours of practice a day for seven years, Katz suggests. Emileigh Brooke Vandiver is “bright,” “a sponge,” but her rubato, which Katz describes as “directly connected to the heart,” is weak. But Nicholas Canellakis, both of whose parents went to Juilliard and who fell in love with the cello when he saw Yo-Yo Ma on “Mister Rogers,” is truly “hungry.”

Aronson follows the growth of these talents under Katz’s guidance, but he also shows how such instruction follows a lineage. One of Katz’s students from 30 years ago, the ebullient and esteemed Pieter Wispelwey, pays a visit and teaches a master class. And Katz drops in on his own former teacher, the late, legendary János Starker.

The art and its instruction have a long history, as a glimpse at the date inscribed in a Cremona-made cello testifies: 1687. It is lore passed on from one master to the next, but it also has a timeless, childlike immediacy that must be nurtured and sustained. “When I see their eyes light up with the same drive I had then,” says Katz. “I get excited teaching.”


★ ★ ★

Directed by Josh Aronson. At Museum of Fine Arts, Friday and various dates through March 23. 89 minutes. Unrated.