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INTERVIEW | Larry Weinstein Talks About His Film Beethoven’s Nine: Ode To Humanity, Premiering At Hot Docs

By Anya Wassenberg on April 18, 2024

Conductor Keri Lynn Wilson and the Ukraine Freedom Orchestra (Photo courtesy of Larry Weinstein)
Conductor Keri Lynn Wilson and the Ukraine Freedom Orchestra (Photo courtesy of Larry Weinstein)

Beethoven’s Nine — it naturally refers to the composer’s iconic last symphony, with the 200th anniversary of its first performance in Vienna looming on May 7. In Larry Weinstein’s new documentary, though, it also refers to the nine people who comment on the work and its philosophical context throughout the film.

In the end, it’s about the renewal of hope, and keeping that concept alive even in the darkest of times.

But, the film — and the filmmaker — take a meandering journey through history, ideas, and current events to get there.

Oscar-nominated writer and director Larry Weinstein is known for his work in the fields of both music and war, among other topics. In a commentary that begins the film, he notes simply that the story came out differently than he’d imagined.

In fact, history caught up with the project, enveloping Weinstein in his own work. Larry acts as writer and director, with producers Jason Charters, Bernhard von Hülsen, Liam Romalis and Maria Willer.

The nine people who comment on various aspects of the work, including the Enlightenment philosophy that the composer believed in strongly include Ukrainian-Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, composer Gabriela Lena Frank, Polish rocker Monica Brodka, Harvard professor Steven Pinker, writer and intellectual Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, iconic cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, and conductor Leonard Bernstein, along with Larry himself.

Beethoven’s Nine

Weinstein is a filmmaker known for works often revolving around themes of music and war — and there’s been plenty of both recently, as he reminds in the movie, including Ukraine and the attacks of Oct 7.

“In terms of its genesis, I was approached by ZDF.” Larry had worked with the German public broadcaster on many prior occasions going back to 1990. “They asked me about doing a film on Beethoven’s 9th.”

He was reluctant at first. There have been, as his research found, several other films with the specific focus of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. He read Harvey Sach’s book The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824, and was impressed by it.

“I thought that the beauty of that piece was the ideals it as based on,” he says. Larry had already made a movie about Beethoven, though, and felt there wasn’t much new to say. His initial answer was a no.

“I never particularly liked the melody to Ode to Joy anyway.”

In fact, he recalls the tedious piano practice that led him to abandon his lessons. But, about a year ago, in the spring of 2023 as the war in Ukraine was heating up, he began to think about the Enlightenment, and what it meant. The project began to take focus.

“I was really moved,” he says. “Why not do a piece that was about the ideals behind the [music]?” Then, another idea. “Wouldn’t it be amazing to get the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra?”

While he assumed their response would be negative, to his surprise, it was a thumb’s up. The Polish Opera Theatre gave the orchestra the space to rehearse, a chorus and soloists to work with.

That’s where the film begins — with conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson and the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, and what appears to be a pretty straightforward film linking music and message.

Backers weren’t hard to find. “They loved the idea.” The broadcasters wanted a bigger film, however, and to feature people other than the orchestra. “We just started assembling people,” Larry says. “We had about eight of them, then October 7 happened.”

Each of the people featured in the film offers a unique side of the story. For Harvard professor Steven Pinker and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, it’s about the lofty ideals of the Enlightenment, where European society began to turn away from the autocratic rule of the aristocracy and religious leaders, and towards human solutions to the problems of humanity.

American composer Gabriela Lena Frank is also deaf, and lends her insight into the condition that plagued Beethoven. Was his music, with its drama, and arrangements that make the piano itself sing and vibrate, influenced by his deafness?

She also points out the flip side of European Enlightenment, namely, the colonization of the Americas and the global south at the same time those ideals were being expressed.

Leonard Bernstein famously conducted the Ode to Joy on Christmas Day in 1989, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the archival footage clearly shows how moved he was by both the music and the occasion.

R-L (clockwise): Jean Schulz and filmmaker Larry Weinstein; Composer Gabriela Lena Frank (Photos courtesy of Larry Weinstein); Composer Gabriela Lena Frank
R-L (clockwise): Jean Schulz and filmmaker Larry Weinstein; Composer Gabriela Lena Frank (Photos courtesy of Larry Weinstein); Composer Gabriela Lena Frank


The story goes off on tangents here and there as they arise. “I like the film to reflect real life,” says Larry. “I like thinking of films as a journey.”

Charles Schulz’s Beethoven-loving Schroeder makes an appearance to lighten the mood, with Schulz commenting in footage on how painstaking it was to transcribe the actual music notes for many of his comic strips.

Rock singer-songwriter Monica Brodka is, on the surface, the unlikeliest of commentators, given her unfamiliarity with the music. “The reason I wanted her, [was] I was struggling with my own dislike of the melody of Ode to Joy,” he explains. Monica’s family background comes from the folk music of the Polish mountains, and she likens the very familiar melody of Ode to Joy to that kind of simple yet catchy quality. “[I think] he was trying to achieve a kind of timeless folk music quality,” he says of the composer’s intentions. “I realized she embodied that whole element of Ode to Joy,” he adds.

“Beethoven was the rock star of his day.”

As filming developed, events intervened. “I mean October 7 happened precisely, to the day, between our first shoot and our last shoot,” he notes. After an attack on their kibbutz, his sister and her husband, who had been shot, went missing.

The events of October 7 left his family reeling, not knowing for months whether the couple was dead or being held hostage. It was his cameraman who persuaded Larry that his own story was not only relevant, but should be added to the film. It broke a 40-year practice of not appearing in his own work, but it made the search for hope personal, and sharply poignant.

“I don’t know what to hope for,” he admits on camera as he describes the situation.

He doesn’t shy away from the difficult aspects of the topic, like the colonialism of Beethoven’s day, or the fact that both Hitler and the protesting students at Tianamen Square found inspiration in Beethoven’s 9th — or the response of the IDF to terrorist acts in the present day.

It’s messy, but it’s real, and the light of hope shines through both the music and the philosophy whose potential has yet to be truly realized.

“I’ve got to be as honest as I can be.”

There are three screenings as part of the Hot Docs Festival, with rush tickets only still available. Rush tickets are available in person only at the venue, with the line-up generally starting about an hour before the screening.

  • More information available [HERE].

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