REVIEW: Around the World in 50 Concerts

Reviewed by Marc Glassman

Around the World in 50 Concerts is far more than a music film. Frankly, 50 concerts by anyone in 90 minutes would be too much— or too little—of a good thing. Happily, this film, which features Holland’s wonderful Royal Concertgebouw’s Orchestra on tour in Buenos Aires, Johannesburg and Saint Petersburg is directed by the inimitable Heddy Honigmann. Not known in North America except among aficionados, Honigmann is a true artist and arguably, the finest Dutch documentary director living today. (Like Canada, Holland has a fine documentary tradition, so that’s quite a statement).

Honigmann makes films that honour their subjects but go farther than most docs take us. In Around the World, she starts the film with the orchestra’s percussionist. What’s it like to play for only a minute in a symphony? The musician lights up and launches into a detailed explanation of how one should play the cymbals quite spectacularly—-but briefly—in the second movement of Bruckner’s 7th. The anticipation of the moment and the delight when he rises and adds his spectacular KLANG to the symphony is blissfully human.

That’s Honigmann’s great gift. Humanism can seem like a meaningless word but it isn’t when describing Honigmann and her work. In Buenos Aires, besides filming concerts, she goes to a football (ok, soccer) themed restaurant where the Uruguayan born bassoonist Gustavo Nunez speaks passionately about his favourite team Penarol, his father (another great bassoonist) and his love of folk music. On the Concertgebouw’s visit to Johannesburg, she takes a long taxi ride with the head of the Soweto Youth Orchestra, Michael Masote, who describes how much a visit by Yehudi Menuhin to the (ghetto) township inspired him as a young man to pursue classical music in his life. In St. Petersburg, she goes to the apartment of a man who tells his story of oppression under Stalin and Hitler; his tears when hearing the music played by Concertgebouw’s Orchestra is truly moving.

Lovers of classical music needn’t panic. There’s plenty of great music throughout the film. But Honigmann has gone one step further. She has shown how profoundly affecting music can be—and how it can transform people’s lives.

For more about the Dutch filmmaker’s career, read Then and Forever: The Objectivity of Heddy Honigmann.