Aronson’s film takes dutiful note of Huberman’s life as prodigy and virtuoso. But only on reaching Palestine does it become genuinely interesting.
Reenactment scenes, as inevitable in documentary film these days as imaginary dialogue in nonfiction, are not the film’s strength. Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony is mysteriously identified as his Italian concerto. If clips of Toscanini in action look remarkably like scenes from a documentary produced by the U.S. Office of War Information in 1943, this is because they are.
Yet the film’s virtues are also hard to miss. Cameos by Ivry Gitlis, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Leon Botstein, reminiscences of second- and third-generation orchestra players, and interviews with surviving contemporaries cover a multitude of soft spots. Archival stills recall a place where the Promised Land showed unimagined promise, and the best of times met the worst of times in a minimally watered landscape of cars, camels, Bauhaus apartment buildings and unpaved streets.
A reminder as welcome today as in 1936 of what courage, imagination and a sense of mission can accomplish in even the most improbable times and places, the film might also remind us that the artist-hero, like stormy weather, can happen anywhere. That includes the land of the free.
In 1939, long before Vishnevskaya took up residence here, Howard University petitioned the Daughters of the American Revolution to let the magnificent contralto Marian Anderson perform at Constitution Hall. Although Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, was a member, the organization said no. Singing for an integrated audience of up to 4,000 was not yet among Washington’s self-evidently unalienable rights.
Then came Plan B. With an assist from the White House and Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes, it was agreed that Anderson would sing instead on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. An audience estimated at 75,000, plus a radio audience in the millions, was there to hear her. A moment as iconic as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s a quarter-century later, it can still be seen, heard and felt on YouTube.
But unsurprisingly, the artist-hero appears most often in the lands of the unfree. After Spain’s ghastly three-year civil war ended with the victory of Francisco Franco’s Nationalists, the cellist Pablo Casals had to fend for himself. With no Plan B, he opted for self-exile till Franco was gone. He even refused to play in countries that recognized Franco’s government.