Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s 125th anniversary tour sent it “Around the World in 50 Concerts,” but famed Dutch documentarian Heddy Honigmann’s film follows a more modest itinerary, highlighting stopovers in Argentina, South Africa and Russia. A magnificent tapestry of sounds and images, this documentary interweaves multiple leitmotifs that flow through the film like familiar old friends, surging to the forefront only to be reabsorbed and casually encountered farther on. Honigmann focuses on individual orchestra and audience members without fanfare, allowing them virtuoso riffs but never losing sight of the ensemble. A sheer delight, “World” should prove irresistible to PBS or cable.
Honest-to-goodness competence, born of a shared love of music, reigns throughout: The fragmented details of Honigmann’s canvas fit together with admirable synergy, not unrelated to the friendly professional teamwork that unites the working musicians. Thus, the complicated logistics of packing up an entire orchestra and transporting it to another country assume — through frequent repetition and through Danniel Danniel’s self-assured editing — a cozy matter-of-factness. Instruments, lodged in their appropriate cases, are moved from concert hall to airport to hotel; passports are piled up, processed and redistributed back to their owners; and rooms are apportioned and inhabited.
Honigmann, though never on camera, remains a constant presence. Orchestra members, accustomed to her company, seem to spontaneously confide in her, telling her stories. Audience members, interviewed one-on-one in moving vehicles or in their homes, enter more fully into a dialogue with Honigmann, their exchanges very casual and conversational.
In an otherwise deserted concert hall, a personable percussionist shares his anxiety over timing out and recognizing the single cymbals cue in an hour-and-a-half Bruckner symphony, the film cutting between his re-enactment and an actual performance. A Buenos Aires cab driver, first seen with his wife at the Concertgebouw concert where his open curiosity contrasts with the blase indifference of the rich habitues, tells of the delicate balance he strikes between not wanting to appear snobbish among his colleagues, yet needing music to rise above the vulgarity of his trade.
But it is the way Honigmann often weaves a subtle continuum around these otherwise discrete stories that makes her film so special. Over dinner in a restaurant in Argentina, a flautist confesses his love of folk themes, inside and outside of classical music, even extending to popular song. Shortly thereafter, the piquant tweaking of “Frere Jacques” in Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 is heard as the camera moves over the streets of Buenos Aires when the orchestra leaves the city. And in a particularly atmospheric nocturnal scene, half of Amsterdam seemingly turns out in nostalgic, candlelit celebration, watching from boats and windows along the canal as a resonant baritone, accompanied by Concertgebuow, with the self-same flautist among them, swings into a rousing rendition of the city’s unofficial anthem, “Aan de Amsterdamse grachten.”
Honigmann, whose films all contain a healthy recognition of worldwide injustice (her previous film about musicians, for instance, concerned out-of-work players in the Paris Metro), here highlights increasingly upbeat or triumphal music to counterpoint an escalating note of melancholy. The stay in Argentina ends with a visit to the memorial to the “disappeared.” A lovely young girl member of a lively Soweto marimba band in South Africa credits music with her ability to survive under the constant threat of rape and violence that hangs over women in her part of the world. For a man in St. Petersburg, the choral upwelling of Mahler’s 8th Symphony recalls happier times with his mother before being imprisoned first by Stalin and then by Hitler.