But Honigmann, the Peruvian-born Dutch documentarian, does what she usually does about questions of passion and age – demolishes them. Whether you happen to be a young Uruguayan bassoonist or an elderly Muscovite survivor of Stalin and Hitler, a love of “serious” music is about soul, not years.
Much the same can be said about Honigmann’s films. “Around the World in 50 Concerts,” which the Museum of Modern Art is giving a weeklong run beginning Feb. 28, follows the group along a world tour that includes stops in Argentina, Amsterdam, Johannesburg and Moscow. And the film includes themes that have dominated Honigmann’s considerable body of nonfiction work.
Music, for instance, has been a fascination since “The Underground Orchestra” (1998), which profiled exiled musicians trying to eke out a living in the Paris Metro; “Crazy,” a masterpiece, examined UN peacekeepers, veterans of various conflict zones, and the music they relied on to keep their sanity.
Music as a sanctuary is a Honigmann-ism: In “Around the World,” her camera focuses on one patron of the Teatro Colon, an anonymous, tastefully besuited Argentine who sits rapt as the Concertgebouw saturates his country’s most prominent music hall with sound. He turns out to be a Buenos Aires cab driver who, during a nighttime crawl around the city, tells Honigmann of his life as a father, husband and worker, and lover of classical music who really only gets to listen when he’s ferrying passengers through the streets. “I escape to my car,” he says, the peculiarity of his lifestyle being lost on neither driver not director.
Age as no barrier to passion was a major motif in Honigmann’s “O Amor Natural” (1996) with its tribute to the erotic poetry of Carlos Drummond de Andrade, and the scenes in the car in “50 Concerts” recall one of Honigmann’s better-known early works, “Metal and Melancholy” (1994). In that film, she metaphored the miseries of Fujimori-era Peru though interviews with more than a dozen cab drivers in Lima, who embodied the hopes, fears and resilience of their people, and provided Honigmann with a vehicle for her chief talent, that of interrogator/extrapolator.
The fact is, “Around the World” is kind of an amalgam of all the director’s strengths in pursuit of a somewhat indistinct objective. Being the child of Polish Jews transplanted to Peru who then immigrated to Holland, Honigmann is well acquainted with dislocation, and this has been a constant in her films. In “Around the World,” we get the rootlessness endemic to being in a world-class orchestra with its constant touring, hotels, homesickness and tiresome trips through passport control. We get the joys of playing timeless music (one of the unexpected treats is a guest appearance with the orchestra by violinist Janine Jansen, sort of the Taylor Swift of classical music). There’s a grasping for connections – a flutist’s call home for his son’s fifth birthday; a pair of violinists visiting an old friend who couldn’t make it to their concert and putting on an impromptu performance in her Buenos Aires chocolate shop. The interviews, as usual for the director, are probing; she’s never shied away from asking the difficult and/or unexpected question. But while “Around the World in 50 Concerts” is a kind of Honigmann’s Greatest Hits, the overall package consists of several ideas that might have been several movies.
One of them goes back to the issue of age: In Johannesburg, the Concertgebouw involves itself in children’s musical education (a performance of “Peter and the Wolf” is delightful) and Honigmann interviews South Africans both young and old, in a effort to examine what he influence has been of great music on underprivileged people. This is a movie all its own. Likewise, the portraits of the various orchestra members (a percussionist, a bassist, a bassoonist, etc.) and Honigmann’s overall successful effort to show that despite whatever stereotypes exist regarding classical musicians as elitist esthetes that nothing could be further from the truth.
Essentially, the parts are greater than the sum in “Around the World in 50 Concerts,” which by the way doesn’t include anything like 50 concerts but does include one in Amsterdam that’s worth, as people always say, the price of admission. Honigmann’s M.O. is to provide no titles on screen, so no one in the film is identified (Jansen is recognizable enough; many aren’t) and thus democratizing the entire enterprise while perhaps frustrating the viewer with a lack of information. At the same time, the music is the point, not just “classical” music but the kind that talks to the musicians themselves. In one scene, our bassoonist and flautist extol the virtues of folk music, especially Dutch folk music, which as one says can bring him to tears. In another scene — on the canals of Amsterdam, with the orchestra playing a free concert to a thousands-strong audience of everyday Dutch – they play that music, and become folk musicians, and the barriers between categories and genres and people evaporate, like the mist on the canals in the morning. It’s a magical moment, like many in Ms. Honigmann’s films.