Why We Love Bach

A Baltimore filmaker recruits everyone from Joshua Bell to Bela Fleck for a documentary about the composer's enduring appeal

December 21, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,tim.smith@baltsun.com

Crawling along the floor in front of a Steinway grand, Michael Lawrence aims his camera at two hands busily moving across the keys to articulate complex baroque counterpoint.

The resulting close-up isn't just about the actual pianist doing the playing. It says something, too, maybe even more, about the Baltimore filmmaker. Lawrence is trying to zoom in on nothing less than the enduring, inspiring genius of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The film, known as the Bach Project until an official name is chosen, had its final shoot on Friday in New York with celebrated composer Philip Glass. He joins a remarkable range of other Bach lovers interviewed for the film, from stellar violinists Joshua Bell and Hilary Hahn to banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, from brilliant video game designer Sid Meier to ukulele wizard Jake Shimabukuro.

A couple of weeks ago, Lawrence and his crew filmed 12-year-old pianist Hilda Huang, who flew in from San Francisco to do the shoot at an unusual location, Keswick Multi-Care. Huang, whose affinity for Bach has earned high marks, played selections from the composer's Art of the Fugue and other pieces for an audience of seniors.

That footage may be the film's opening sequence. "It was great seeing someone so young playing Bach for the old people," says the tall, stocky Lawrence, whose long gray hair and beard give him a Santa-esque look at this time of year, complete with friendly eyes. "I'm thinking of having shots of the Keswick residents lead into a faces-of-humanity montage. I might have a title for the film now: The Faces of Bach."

That a film about Bach should end up shooting in a senior care center says something about the breadth of the enterprise. The idea came from Richard Chisolm, Lawrence's director of photography, whose many credits include the ABC series Hopkins 24/7. "His mom died at the center, and he visited her there often," Lawrence says. "He had the idea that the place would be great for the shoot, and it was."

Currently in post-production, the film will explore the different ways that a German composer who died more than 250 years ago continues to inspire musicians and non-musicians alike. An all-music bonus DVD containing complete versions of performances interwoven through interviews in the main film will be included in the final product, which should be on the market this summer.

"Right now, I'm working on finding a structure for the film," says Lawrence, who talks at the equivalent of 70 mph, interrupted by the occasional hearty chuckle. "I've got to take chances. I don't want to just string these [interviews] together. There has to be a story. It is not easy, but I've got the goods."

Those goods, preserved on state-of-the-digital-art equipment in Lawrence's meticulously organized second-floor office/studio at his home, include a sequence with Bell discussing and playing Bach's formidable, profound Chaconne, which he has never recorded. "Bach is a hero of mine, and of every other living and dead musician," Bell says from New York. "This was a nice opportunity to delve deeper into the Chaconne, and to have a snapshot of this point in my life."

He found Lawrence to be "an easygoing, jolly guy. And he has a genuine love for Bach. I'm assuming his affection will come through in the film," Bell says.

His involvement with the project didn't stop when the cameras did. He also represented the project with Lawrence in California this month at the 2008 Entertainment Gathering, an annual event that attracts a heady assortment of creative people. The roster included screenwriter Marshall Brickman, nature photographer Franz Lanting and singer/songwriter Todd Rundgren.

It was at the 2007 EG that Lawrence gave an initial presentation about his project, garnering some funding (he used his own savings to start the venture). He gave an update at this year's EG, and then introduced Bell, who played the Chaconne for the attendees.

The Indianapolis-born Lawrence, 63, traces his own fascination with Bach to his student days. "I think it was the Swingle Singers that really hooked me," he says. This a cappella jazz vocal ensemble, directed by Ward Swingle, made a splash singing ingenious versions of Bach pieces in the 1960s (they can be heard briefly on the soundtrack of the new film Milk).

Swingle flew from Paris earlier this year specifically for Lawrence's project. On film, he discusses his group's novelty - "People hadn't scatted Bach before" - and the versatility of Bach's music. "You can appreciate [it] in so many ways," he says. "It's mind-boggling." Swingle describes how he starts each morning performing something by Bach: "It lifts you up for the day, and you lead a better life as a result."

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