'Around the World in 50 Concerts' ('Om de wereld in 50 concerten'): IDFA Review

Courtesy of International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam
A continent-hopping hymn to artistic and musical transcendence

Veteran documentarian Heddy Honigmann takes to the skies with Holland's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

The mutually beneficial relationships between musicians and their audiences form the core of Around the World in 50 Concerts (Om de wereld in 50 concerten), a delightful documentary from Dutch doyenne Heddy Honigmann. Accompanying the ladies and gentlemen of Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on a global tour to mark the ensemble's 125th anniversary, the film belies its trans-global title by devoting the bulk of its brisk running-time to Buenos Aires, Johannesburg and Moscow.

Accessibly entertaining and suitable for audiences old and young, including those previously immune to classical music's charms, the picture proved a popular curtain-raiser for Europe's leading documentary showcase IDFA ahead of its Dutch theatrical bow on November 27. A solid film-festival and small-screen choice in other countries, it further bolsters Honigmann's reputation as a keen-eyed, sympathetic chronicler of artistic endeavor.

It also forms a lovely, belated companion-piece to Honigmann's The Underground Orchestra, which obtained arthouse Stateside play back in 1998 and focused on exiled musicians living in Paris. Both films emphasize the essential internationalism of music, its function as a universal language which recognizes no political borders. Dutch citizen Honigmann, who lived in her native country of Peru until she was 27 and is the daughter of Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivors, also revels in music's ability to transcend notional 'barrier's of class and race.

In Buenos Aires, we meet a taxi-driver whose passion for the classics helps offset what he terms the "vulgar" world of the street; in Johannesburg, the spotlight falls on enthusiastic members of the Soweto Youth Orchestra, inspired by the Concertgebouw's visit; in Moscow, retiree Sergej speaks movingly of a life scarred by the oppressions first of Hitler, then of Stalin. These individuals occupy as much of the spotlight in Around the World in 50 Concerts as as any of the orchestra's vast personnel.

Of the latter, percussionist Herman Rieken and double-bassist Dominic Geldis emerge as particularly engaging and illuminating protagonists. Both abound in genial humor, Rieken kicking off proceedings with a particularly amusing mini-lecture about the fleeting but crucial role played by the cymbals in a certain work by Bruckner. Seldis, meanwhile, provides a superb analysis of a Shostakovich symphony which epitomizes the film's ability to convey expertise and enthusiasm in illuminatingly direct, down-to-earth ways.

And while wall-to-wall music is generally the bane and blight of contemporary documentaries, here Honigmann sensitively interpolates generous helpings of the orchestra's recordings to envelopingly persuasive effect. The most powerful episode of all is, paradoxically, the one closest to "home": a nocturnal al fresco rendition of a sentimental Amsterdam ditty using the city's streets and canals as grand backdrop, capable of bringing tears not only to Dutch eyes.

Production company: Cobos Films
Director / Screenwriter: Heddy Honigmann
Producers: Carmen Cobos, Kees Rijninks
Cinematographer: Goert Giltay
Editor: Danniel Danniel
Sales: NPO, Amsterdam

No Rating, 94 minutes

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