Pedja Muzijevic « PREV | NEXT »: High And Low, But Squeezed In The Middle

March 30, 2011

Bach's circle still unbroken, and wider than you'd think

Those who love Bach are always looking to win him new followers.Glenn Gould's "Goldberg Variations"  has been my gift of choice when people ask. I now pair it with a recent DVD film by Michael Lawrence called "Bach & Friends," which captures the insights of a novel cross-section of Bach interpreters. 


The participants in this project include an A-list of musicians who extend well beyond classical music's usual suspects. We have -- in addition to composer Philip Glass, pianist Simone Dinnerstein and violinist Joshua Bell -- top artists of the banjo, mandolin and glass harp (with its water-filled crystal goblets). That's ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro, at right. We also hear from other brilliant people who specialize in computer infrastructure, video game design, brain chemistry and fractal theory. Bach lovers all.

The DVD project was a labor of love for film-maker Michael Lawrence, a classical guitarist and composer by training, with a healthy quotient of bluegrass and jazz in his mix. Lawrence's career veered early into the world of documentary film-making, where he composed film scores and mastered the other aspects of the trade. Now in his 60s, Lawrence has taken the path back around to the subject of music. Rightly determining that most Bach documentaries are dreadful, he decided to have a go at a Bach film himself.

Felix Hell.jpg

You can't beat this DVD set if you're seeking a way into Bach's music. Assembled in Lawrence's Baltimore production studio, a former bedroom, on a shoestring budget, it was envisioned from the beginning to be accessible to the general audience. All manner of musicians volunteered their time. I instantly took to the cherub-faced organist Felix Hell, a sizzling virtuoso with feet as fleet as Savion Glover's, as he tore through the Fugue in D major (BWV 532) on a tidy three-manual Holtkamp. Here's an excerpt that the film-maker posted on YouTube, including some great interview footage that didn't make the film's final cut:

Bela Fleck.jpg

I was struck as well by the the boundary-crossing banjo player Béla Fleck who, after lingering over the Presto from Bach's Violin Sonata No. 1, confessed that this composer's music is "the way we all wish we improvised."  These players generally speak without the customary academic inflection, and the connections they make may come as a revelation to classical musicians, such as these remarks by Fleck on Bach and the legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane:

Lawrence said he couldn't believe his luck at first. "I'd started making cold calls to the best people I could think of and one after another said yes," he told me by telephone. "Why were they doing this?" Continue ...

Lawrence found his answer during the shootings: "What finally brought it home to me were the interviews. I spent at least an hour and a half with each artist, and as these people let their hearts out, expressing their feelings about Bach, I began to realize this was a very personal part of their lives they wanted to share."



Lawrence deserves enormous credit for capturing such an intimate tone in the film. He took two cameras and a miniscule crew into the favored practice areas, sound studios, living rooms, backyards and kitchens of his subjects. He got as close as he could to each musician -- he's pictured at right with Philip Glass -- and then he stayed out of the way. The interviewer's voice is not heard. The artists speak as if they are sharing their thoughts directly with you, a respected peer, though not necessarily a musician. Most of the performances take place in small personal spaces with no audience present. You have the sense that you are fortunate to witness these private musical acts, as in this supplementary YouTube clip, again posted by Lawrence, of Simone Dinnerstein:

Visually cohesive, carefully edited and wonderful sounding, the film has an interesting narrative thread provided largely by Michael Hawley, a former director of special projects at MIT's Media Lab, and winner of the Van Cliburn Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in 2002. Hawley's credentials include work with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and he participated in various tech start-ups. It rings true when Hawley argues that "music was the technological vortex of Bach's day" because of the pipe organ, "by far most complex machine that civilization had come up with to that point." Hawley thinks of Bach as much like a computer innovator, "in the thick of things in terms of the design and construction of these instruments."  


Chris Thile.jpg

The film abounds in these conceptual hooks, capable of pulling newcomers into Bach's world. Mandolinist Chris Thile says he discovered Bach by listening to Gould's "Goldberg Variations." He talks about Bach's routine of putting the kids to bed each night, then taking a carafe of brandy upstairs to a little closet to write music. "You know," Thile marvels, "candle, cognac and that closet, and look at all the music we got from that." 

Philip Glass 3.jpgThe composer Philip Glass, with humility and incredulity, suggests that Bach  probably didn't compose music "in any way that you or I think about composition. It seems to me he just heard the music and wrote it down. We're talking about a genius. We're talking about, How did Einstein think of the theory of relativity? He said he visualized it."

"Bach & Friends" includes a second disc that provides complete performances of the music from the film, shorn of documentary overlay. You'll find violinist Joshua Bell performing the famous Chaconne from the Second Partita in its entirety. Clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, seated in the splendid resonating chamber of New York City's Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, shapes the lingering lines of the Chromatic Fantasy, originally written for keyboard. 

The film contains notable segments devoted to Bach-related science, brain research and mathematics, as in this excerpt, which gets into the relationship between Bach's melodic permutations and fractal geometry:  

It may seem like quibbling to argue that the comedic interjection of PDQ Bach, Peter Schickele's fictitious 21st son of Johann Sebastian, is out of place. Or to note that some participants' remarks are at odds with recent musicological research, especially the chronology and circumstance of works composed at the end of Bach's life. Or to suggest the documentary could be 20 minutes shorter.


Despite the film's generous length, Michael Lawrence acknowledges that its focus is almost entirely instrumental, leaving the realm of Bach's choral and sacred music largely untouched. Discussion of Bach's devout religious faith is thus largely omitted, although several performers shared their own ideas about the music's essential spirituality. To expand the project to encompass Bach's great liturgical works was out of the question for Lawrence, given his limited budget and the film's deliberately intimate focus. He is now seeking funds for a sequel that will concentrate on Bach's sacred output, including the B Minor Mass. (Some details here.) 


Bernstein Omnibus.jpg

Another Bach film would be welcome, especially if it matches the high-quality production of "Bach & Friends." By comparison, I can't put much stock in the potential of Leonard Bernstein's recently re-issued 1957 Omnibus television program on Bach's St. Matthew Passion to bring anyone into Bach's sacred music fold. It is from the DVD set Leonard Bernstein: Omnibus - The Historic TV Broadcasts, an important compilation that includes programs on jazz, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, the American musical and the art of conducting. 

Together, the Omnibus DVDs will bring back powerful memories to all who saw the programs live. Yet to be frank, the Bach program is a kinescope relic, with sound in the upper register especially harsh and distorted. It is unlikely to convince the newcomer of Bach's greatness.  Here's a YouTube excerpt, but ignore the first few seconds of video footage -- the disc isn't quite that bad!

The choristers, decked out in Renaissance ruffled collars and starched caps, seem distant and quaint. And Bernstein begins the program by stating flatly that most people find Bach boring. It's a setup, of course, for Bernstein's dazzling counter argument, which he returns to repeatedly while deftly demonstrating various compositional techniques in the St. Matthew Passion. But Bach's music is performed much more frequently now than it was in 1957. His music is no longer considered boring, and not a single musician on Bach & Friends felt the slightest need to go there.


Other DVDs in the Omnibus package hold up better. And Bernstein's Bach summation is powerful.  He describes Bach as "a man, after all, not a God, but a man of God" and characterizes his output as the "white hot creation of 50 ceaseless years."   But it's ultimately of little use. The music can't be heard well enough to clinch his argument. The new generation has its own interpreters, and they are marvelously sampled in "Bach & Friends."

Photos credit: Michael Lawrence Films

March 30, 2011 10:02 AM | | Comments (0)

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