Maestro, If You Please!

Around the World in 50 Concerts (Om de wereld in 50 concerten)
(Netherlands, 94 min.)
Dir.  Heddy Honigmann
Photo: Mariss Jenkins
Maestro, if you please! Let the conductors of the Hot Docs hit Around the World in 50 Concerts be your guide to sonorous world tour that hits a high note. This behind-the-scenes music doc travels the globe and connects subjects around the world with the glissandos and trills of the Dutch Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Director Heddy Honigmann acts as a conductor of this musical train as she tours the world while keeping the orchestra in time with the global pulse of classical music. It’s no wonder that the double meanings of conductor have such a strong presence in the film, since Around the World in 50 Concerts conveys how music transports us to places we can only imagine. Music is the universal language and Honigmann finds a common voice around the globe using the music of this wonderful orchestra.

The title of the film misleads somewhat since Honigmann only presents a few of the fifty concerts that the RCO played around the world to mark its 125th anniversary, but less proves to be more as she takes the film from Berlin to Buenos Aires, Soweto, and St. Petersburg. The filmmaker interviews a handful of musicians as they prepare for their concerts and each one explains the art of his or her instrument (“percussion is all about waiting” one drummer says) before the film shows how the musician plays an integral part of the whole. (The subsequent cutaway to the percussionist patiently waiting to bang the drum is rather droll.) Behind-the-scenes glimpses show how the musicians tend and care for their instruments and keep the company in tune.

The film also shows how music and the arts provide a great outlet in life in addition to being magical entertainment. A session with a cab driver in Argentina, for example, adds a poignant note as he describes how classical music lets him escape the isolation he feels while driving. In Soweto, the RCO plays to great acclaim to an audience of students (their jest with a magical wand is quite funny) and Honigmann underscores the value the arts bring to the community by interviewing two young girls who explain their hopes and dreams to the camera while noting the hardships of the community they escape in their marimba band. Similarly, a village elder shares a story of a Jewish professor who taught him to play the violin and invited him to come in the front door for lessons when other teachers wanted him to take lessons on the sly and enter through the back door to hide from the neighbours. The elderly man now teaches violin to a new generation of students in Soweto, some of whom could be prospective members of the RCO in documentaries to come.

Around the World in 50 Concerts bridges cultures and communities using the power of music that endures. Weaving together this international ensemble, Honigmann finds common themes, experiences, and pitches that let the classical work resonate with musicians and music lovers around the globe. Audiences expecting to see reserved and frumpy players might be surprised by the jovial spirit and camaraderie of the musicians. Their fun and amiable guides, simply because they’re pure music lovers at heart. It’s easy to sit back and enjoy the music when all the tour guides want their concertos to be your guide.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Around the World in 50 Concerts opens in Toronto at The Bloor on August 14.