Bach's many 'Friends' say why

Mike Lawrence film documents 18th-century composer's influence on today's artists

February 28, 2010|By Tim Smith | tim.smith@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

Three years after he started on the project, Baltimore filmmaker Mike Lawrence has released his latest documentary, "Bach & Friends," the kind of work that has "labor of love" all over it.

Lawrence's passion for Bach's music led him to ask a cross section of artists to discuss the composer's place in their creative lives. The result is an entertaining mix of ideas and emotions, along with music-making of a high caliber.

The two-hour DVD comes with a bonus disc with complete performances that are heard partially in the film.

With something like 30 interviewees crammed into "Bach & Friends," there's a certain level of unwieldiness to the product; that's a lot of talking heads. But Lawrence, who produced, directed and edited the film, generally maintains interest and flow, and except for some painful close-ups, there's enough variety of camera work and locations to keep the visual appeal strong. (Lawrence has entered the film in several festivals; premiere showings in Baltimore and other cities are in the works.)

A little more biographical material might have been useful for some viewers, and it might also have been wise to include a word or two of explanation about technical terms that get thrown around.

But by avoiding anything stuffy, the film has an appealing character that would make it a natural for PBS (it would even be ideal pledge week fare on that network, if only Lawrence had found some Celtic dancers heavily into Bach).

No one could miss the genuine enthusiasm and just plain reverence that the film's participants express. When pianist Simone Dinnerstein says that playing Bach is "as close to religion as I get," she's speaking for many musicians (even those who also have more traditional religious leanings).

Bach deserves his place high up on the altar of art, not just because of what composer Philip Glass describes as the "awesome amount, complexity and quality of the music," but also for the way that music suggests something ineffably spiritual.

Then again, you don't even have to get all celestial. Bluegrass mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile is just as effective noting how Bach's music just slams you "in the gut."

Thile lights up as he talks, reinforcing the fact of Bach's appeal not just across centuries, but musical borders, and he plays the heck out of a Partita transcription. The mandolinist also provides the perfect summary line for the film: "Everybody exposed to [Bach's music] in the right situation and the right frame of mind is going to love it."

Among the classical performers in the film, clarinetist Richard Stoltzman is especially eloquent in his remarks and his playing of a transcription of the D minor Chromatic Fantasy. Hearing such a work performed so persuasively and exquisitely on an instrument the composer didn't write for just reinforces the marvelous mutability factor of Bach's music.

That lesson is driven home as well by the disarming virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, who clearly relishes the way Bach translates so effectively to "the underdog of all instruments" - the ukulele.

What Mozart called "the king of instruments," the organ, makes a compelling vehicle for Peabody Conservatory grad Felix Hell to focus on Bach's creativity. Classical guitar star and Peabody faculty member Manuel Barrueco makes an elegant contribution. Popular violinist Joshua Bell uses tried-and-true lines, referring to the Chaconne as "powerful and amazing," but his playing is anything but mundane.

The long list of musicians also includes stellar Baltimore-bred violinist Hilary Hahn; up-and-coming teenage pianist Hilda Huang (seen playing some Bach at a Baltimore home for seniors, a charming shot); and veteran keyboard artist João Carlos Martins, who has lost full use of his hands, but not his determination to keep Bach in them. A segment with the Emerson String Quartet tellingly includes the fugue Bach was writing before he died.

The amiable pianist and Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty member Mike Hawley becomes a connecting thread for the film, weaving in insights and occasional biographical data.

A segment on improvisation goes on too long. A commemoration of pianist and legendary Bach interpreter Glenn Gould also drags, and turns into an ad for Zenph Studio, the software company that turns recordings into "re-performances" on a digitally wired piano. And, for all of Peter Schickele's enduring humor, there really isn't much point in having him talk about his classic invention, P.D.Q. Bach.

The film's major omission is Bach's vocal music (the inclusion of the Swingle Singers doesn't count). No mention of the B minor Mass or the St. Matthew Passion, and each church interior scene (Baltimore's Basilica makes a lovely appearance with cellist Zuill Bailey) only underlined the absence of the sublime sacred repertoire.

But it seems churlish to wish for more, since Lawrence has achieved so much in his film. By vibrantly exploring and celebrating Bach's hold on today's musicians, "Bach & Friends" makes it clear why the composer will continue to exert just as strong a hold for generations to come.

The two-DVD set of "Bach & Friends" ($39.95) is available from mlfilms.com.

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