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Bach Movies
Bach & friends
Reviews & Discussions - Part 2

Details, see: Bach & friends (The Bach Project)

 

Continue from: Announcements & Discussions - Part 1

Bach Project DVD available January 2010

Aryeh Oron wrote (January 7, 2010):
About two months ago, Paul T. McCain asked:
"Does anyone know when the Bach project movie is coming out? I'm really looking forward to seeing it all put together."
Yesterday, I received a message from Michael Lawrence, the producer of the Bach Project movie:

**********************************************************************
Hello Aryeh: I'm very pleased to announce that editing of The Bach Project is very near completion. The light is very bright at the end of this long tunnel. Feedback from close advisors and friends has been extremely positive and enthusiastic.

The film runs just under two hours and has turned out even better than I had hoped. I'm confident that it is the best work I have ever done. Of course it would never have been possible without all the many talented Bach players who have contributed to this effort. I'm convinced that our shared love for Bach has coalesced into a charmed production of which we can all be proud.

I now begin the final stages of preparing the finished film and DVD. Once the cut is locked down, I will finalize the picture and prepare the audio tracks for the sound mix. Berle Cherney (Visual Productions) will reshoot the still photographs on his computerized "Animotion" stand. Don Barto (Soundriven, Inc.) will do the final audio mix and Brooks Moore will supervise the video finishing as well as the DVD authoring at his Bonnemaison Productions.

The DVD of the documentary will be available in January 2010 and will include a second "Bonus DVD" with music-only, complete performances which will run about an hour and a half. So for instance, you will be able to experience Josh Bell's transcendent performance of the Chaconne in its entirety and without interruption.

It has been a long and magical journey. The Bach Project was originally launched at the EG'07 and Mike Hawley and Richard Saul Wurman have been kind enough to invite The Bach Project back for a celebration of its completion. The next EG will be held in Monterey, January 21-23. http://www.the-eg.com/

The Bach Project started with no funding in place and only a dream. With the generous support of so many, the project is now very near completion. Of the $30,000 needed for post production, $10,000 has been raised. I will still need to raise $20,000 to pay all the bills required to finish the project.

Once again, I must hold out my hand out and ask for financial help. If you know of anyone who might wish to make a tax exempt contribution to help finish the film, please have them send a check made out to The Handel Choir of Baltimore and designated for the Bach Project. Here is a link to the Bach funding web page: http://www.mlfilms.com/productions/bach_project/funding


Thanks for all your support and encouragement over the long haul of realizing this dream.
**********************************************************************

 

Bach & friends - new Bach movie

Aryeh Oron wrote (January 27, 2010):
I received this morning a short message from Michael Lawrence:

*****************************************************
Hi Aryeh: EG was terrific this year. Bach & friends had a prime-time slot on the evening of the second day. The opening 5 min. of the doc:
http://www.mlfilms.com/files/mlfmusic/b&fopeningbb.mov
looked wonderful on the big screen and the sound was first rate. After the clip, I spoke briefly and then introduced Richard Stoltzman who played the Chromatic Fantasy to a standing ovation. Unbelievably, Josh Bell also flew in the day after his Live From Lincoln Center broadcast and was there to also represent Bach an Friends. It couldn't have gone better. Lots of interest and Buzz.

Thanks,
Mike
*****************************************************
Richard Stoltzman and Mike - Bach & Friends at EG'10:
http://ark.the-eg.com/schedule/s22.html
Bach DVD Artwork (it's a wrap):
http://www.mlfilms.com/files/mlfimages/bach/funding/bachwrap.jpg
mlfilms.com - Bach & Friends web page:
http://www.bachandfriends.com/
New Bach Movie page on the BCW:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Movie/F0020.htm

Julian Mincham wrote (January 27, 2010):
[To Aryeh Oron] What a fantastic group of heartfelt opinions about what Bach's mu/sic means to different people. And what an eclectic group ! Makes one want to see the reast of the film ASAP.

VDMA 1580 wrote (January 28, 2010):
[To Aryeh Oron] I am so eager to see the complete movie. I've been watching and following its development since day one and am very eager to have the whole thing completed.

 

Bach Project DVD

Michael Emerson wrote (February 6, 2010):
Michael Lawrence's "Bach Project" DVD just arrived. I watched it, absolutely spellbound for its entire two hours. The exceptionally intelligent and sophisticated commentary by lots (and lots) of instrumental players (no vocal, choral, or orchestral content, unfortunately--maybe on "Bach Project II," hint, hint?) was insightful and riveting. A recurring theme involves JSB's improvisational skills and what that means for modern composers and artists (and brain research!). The performances are first-rate, too. While Bach "neophytes" can certainly enjoy and benefit from watching this (it would be a good "pump primer" for them), I suspect those who are already in awe of JSB will get the most from, and be most moved, by it. This is a GREAT DVD. Bravo!

VDMA 1580 wrote (February 6, 2010):
[To Michael Emerson] Can you post a link where one can purchase this DVD?

Thank you.

Evan Cortens wrote (February 6, 2010):
[To VDMA 1580] Here's the link: http://www.mlfilms.com/productions/bach_project/purchase

Looking forward to seeing it myself!

VDMA 1580 wrote (February 6, 2010):
Here's the link: http://www.mlfilms.com/productions/bach_project/purchase

Michael Emerson wrote (February 7, 2010):
correction (sort of): I wrote, "...(no vocal...content, unfortunately..."). There are a couple of segments with Ward Swingle and the Swingle Singers doing a capella versions of non-vocal works.

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 7, 2010):
< http://www.mlfilms.com/productions/bach_project/purchase >
There are terrific musicians listed there for their performances in the production, but none of them play in the instrumentation Bach himself knew and used (except of course for solo organ, violin, or cello - and they're playing modernized instruments instead of period-style instruments, too). Everything else there is a transcription. Does the program explain why the writer/producer made that choice?

VDMA 1580 wrote (February 7, 2010):
[To Bradley Lehman] Horrors!

I'll be sure to burn my DVD when it arrives.

I'll look forward to Mr. Lehman's no doubt far superior two hour documentary on Bach's music featuring the same collection of musicians all playing Bach precisely as Mr. Lehman knows Bach should have been performed.

Sigh.

Evan Cortens wrote (February 7, 2010):
[To VDMA 1580] Despite vdma1580's unsympathetic response, I think Brad's question is a good one; nowhere does he malign the musicianship of the participants of the video, nor do I think that was his intent.

I would wonder if it was even a conscious choice on the part of Mr. Lawrence... I know before I became involved with things early music, I often simply thought the identity of the woresided only in its pitch content. Further, I would venture to say that nowhere is this more evident than in Bach. One doesn't hear Beethoven's op. 131 played by saxophone quartet, or Mahler 5 sung a capella. (That said, I wouldn't mind hearing this, especially the latter!)

Again, this isn't to malign transcriptions; they're often wonderful! But it is worth noting!

Michael Emerson wrote (February 7, 2010):
If they did, I'm sure there are those -- ahem -- who would criticize them for not wearing wigs and leggings.

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (February 7, 2010):
[To Michael Emerson] Oh, drag queens performing Bach. I bet that's never been filmed before!

Julian Mincham wrote (February 7, 2010):
[To Evan Cortens] One doesn't hear Beethoven's op. 131 played by saxophone quartet, or Mahler 5 sung a capella. (That said, I wouldn't mind hearing this, especially the latter!)

Which tempts me to reply, somewhat quirkily, true enough--but one can hear the 1812 Overture played upon descant recorders---and hilarious it is too! Does anyone recall the reference? Or have the recording?

John Pike wrote (February 7, 2010):
[To Evan Cortens] I’m looking forward to ordering this.

Although I greatly enjoy hearing Bach performed as authentically as possible, I think his music can also sound wonderful played on modern instruments.

One of my favourite films about Bach is the “Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach”, directed by Straub in about 1967 I think, with Gustav Leonhardt as Bach and some very nice harpsichord playing as a result (to my ears at least). No doubt there are many inauthentic things about the film musically, but it did feel very real to me, with the endless arguments with authorities and children dying every year. This film is still available in the US I think, but is not available in European coding and I don’t want to risk hacking my DVD player.

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 7, 2010):
[To Evan Cortens] Evan's correct: mine was a straightforward question, wanting to know factually what the program itself said (if anything) about the choice to use all those transcriptions exclusively.

Aryeh Oron wrote (February 7, 2010):
[To John Pike] See: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Movie/F0001.htm

Neil Mason wrote (February 8, 2010):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< One doesn't hear Beethoven's op. 131 played by saxophone quartet, or Mahler 5 sung a capella. (That said, I wouldn't mind hearing this, especially the latter!)
Which tempts me to reply, somewhat quirkily, true enough--but one can hear the 1812 Overture played upon descant recorders---and hilarious it is too! Does anyone recall the reference? Or have the recording? >
Wasn't that the Cambridge Buskers?

Julian Mincham wrote (February 8, 2010):
[To Neil Mason] Not the one's I was thinking of which was an arrangemnt of several of the Tchaikovsky big themes for recorders and small drum. I am pretty sure it was part of one of the Hoffnung Iterplanetory Music Festivals of the 1950s. It was quite hilarious, probably the best mismatch between content and media of transmission ever----which is what made it so funny of course.

Yoël L. Arbetman wrote (February 8, 2010):
Neil Mason wrote:
Julian Mincham wrote:
<< One doesn't hear Beethoven's op. 131 played by saxophone quartet, or Mahler 5 sung a capella. (That said, I wouldn't mind hearing this, especially the latter!) >
Sorry, but I've lost track of who made the original Mahler 5 remark. While I know of no Mahler 5 (adagietto) a capella, there is this monstrosity which I "own": http://gustavmahler.net.free.fr/ruckert.html (find Zepnik):
Ensemble Landsberg
Karl ZEPNIK N/A AMBITUS Arrgt for choir Clytus Gottwald,
Feb.1.1998

It a chorus singing Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen and, while Samuel Barber made his quartet adagio inter alia into an Agnus Dei, spare me such Mahler.

Evan Cortens wrote (February 9, 2010):
[To Yoël L. Arbeitman] It was I who made the Mahler 5 remark, though rather off-handedly. I'd say singing "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" as a choir is perhaps of a different order, given that it's a standalone song to begin with, so, in my opinion, it's more a change of degree than of kind.

Certainly the Barber comparison is apt. What I was really meant to say however is: the Swingle Singers work with Bach, but they wouldn't work with Mahler. Undoubtedly the reason for this is related both to the music and to our attitudes about it, or at least that's what I'd argue.

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (February 11, 2010):
Evan Cortens wrote:
< It was I who made the Mahler 5 remark, though rather off-handedly. I'd say singing "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" as a choir is perhaps of a different order, given that it's a standalone song to begin with, so, in my opinion, it's more a change of degree than of kind. >
I fear I spoke relying only on those recordings I either know personally or own copies of. There is indeed a Mahler 5 adagietto for choir and I believe the same group. Look through this discography for various transcriptions of the whole or mvts. of Mahler 5 and towards the end you will see the Adagietto for choir.
http://gustavmahler.net.free.fr/symph5.html

 

'Bach and friends' review

Neil Halliday wrote (February 18, 2010):
The 'Bach and friends' documentary DVD, from film-maker Michael Lawrence, is just as the title says: a collection of master musicians relating their enthusiam for the music of J.S.Bach, with their spoken commentary accompanying music excepts.

The full-length performances of the chosen works are presented on the 'bonus DVD' that comes in the package.

Of necessity in such a layout, only works for soloists or very small ensembles are presented; no doubt there are economic barriers to obtaining, in live format, insights of larger ensembles for performance oflarger vocal and instrumental works such as cantatas and masses, etc. Also, no attempt to present works on original instruments has been made; IMO, this has no significance for the documentary's impact, but may be of concern to some viewers.

The documentary does involve several examples of transcription and improvistion, which will please some viewers more than others; I suspect only lovers of the banjo, or mandolin, for example, will really enjoy listening to transcriptions for those instruments, of movements from violin partitas or whatever, despite the obvious enthusiam of the musicians concerned. An improvisational 'medley' of Bach pieces by duo pianists does indeed demonstrate their powers in this regard, as well as their sheer delight in the music making; but the segment concerning the scientific investigation of brain-waves associated with improvisation did not hold my interest. On the other hand, there are some very lovely, colourful patterns illustrating the discussion on Bach and mathematics, with reference to fractal geometry in particular.

The Swingles Singers are there with comments by Ward Swingle; his attractive lead singer, vocalising the flute part in the Badinerie from the B minor suite, graces the visual component.

Peter Schickele gives a typically tongue in cheek commentary on the life and works of PDQ Bach, with the 'Air on the G string' played by violin, tuba and another instrument of doubtful provenance (!).

An amazingly confident and capable 12 year old chinese pianist holds the attention of her aged audience in a nursing home.

There is some discussion of Glenn Gould's contribution and accompanying music excerpts; I found the black and white stills a little disappointing, considering there are some fabulous videos of this amazing pianist in full flight, currently available on youtube.

The bonus DVD features very engaging performances as well as exciting visual experiences.

The 23 year old Felix Hell performs the youthful, energetic organ fugue in D major BWV 532, one of his favourite works, so he he tells us in the preceding documentary DVD. The visuals of his brilliant pedal technique are astoundi; this is an aspect of the concert organist's craft which an audience rarely gets to see. The instrument itself, with three manuals, all of which are employed for their varying timbres, is of modern construction and is as beautiful in appearance as in sound, in its church surroundings.

Simone Donnerstein gives a "heavenly, dreamy" (in the positive sense of the words) expressive performance of variation 13 of the Goldbergs, on a modern grand. Her total immersion in the music is instructive; it's as if time and
space have ceased to exist for the performer.

This total absorption of the performer by the music is evident in all the serious contributions; Hilary Hahn is another
that comes to mind.

The Emerson String Quartet demonstrate what an effective medium their ensemble is for the realisation of The Art of Fugue. Their vigorous performance of Contrapunctus 9, with its jazzy brilliance, is visually and aurally stunning.

Violinist Joshua Bell concludes the music with a brilliant performance of the famous Chaconne. Visual highlights here include his vigorous "pumping" of the bow, as if forcing the relentless flow of 1/32 notes from the instrument in that most technically challenging variation about a third to half of the way through. (Or are they 1/64th notes? In any case, the brilliance of these broken chords - marked simply arpeggio in the score - is always astounding, in the hands of a master violinist who can nail each one of those notes. The image of a humming bird's rapidly fluttering wings comes to mind).

-------

Are there too many close-ups, for example, of fingers on strings, or performers faces divorced from their hands and instruments, and so forth?

Perhaps not, but I personally did become irritated with such visual techniques at times. I know there will likely be a strong urge for film makers to display their own 'artistic proclivities' when filming the art of great musicians, but devices such as wierd camera angles (including, eg, the underside of Donnerstein's right hand (!) for a period of time), artificial light and shade effects, extreme closeups, etc, only serve to obscure, rather than to elucidate the musicians' wonderful techniques, IMO.

In any case, by the conclusion of the proceedings, many veiwers, like myself, will most likely experience the pleasing sensation of having made the aquaintance of many of Bach's *present day* friends!

Yoël L. Arbeitman wrote (February 18, 2010):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< In any case, by the conclusion of the proceedings, many veiwers, like myself, will most likely experience the pleasing sensation of having made the aquaintance of many of Bach's *present day* friends! >
Thank you, Neil, for your lengthy and many-sided review of this DVD. From you review and one or two others I've read here, it seems to me that this would be a wonderful thing to show in the USA on Public Television as a way to entice a "general audience" to get acquainted with Bach.

I find it difficult to imagine that persons who have listened to Bach all their lives (long or short ones) would really profit from this. Of course I speak only for myself.

That's my two cents,

Ed Myskowski wrote (February 18, 2010):
[To Neil Halliday] Thanks for the detailed review. On balance, I will give it a pass. Dont miss it if you cant, as arch-cynic George Frazier liked to say.

< The documentary does involve several examples of transcription and improvistion, which will please some viewers more than others; I suspect only lovers of the banjo, or mandolin, for example, will really enjoy listening to transcriptions for those instruments, of movements from violin partitas or whatever >
EM:
I will just rely on my old LP pf Walter (now Wendy) Carlos playing switched on Bach. Wears thin quickly, physically and musically. I guess I would have a perverse curiosity to see Wendy recreate the performance.

NH:
< The Swingles Singers are there with comments by Ward Swingle; his attractive lead singer, vocalising the flute part in the Badinerie from the B minor suite, graces the visual component. >
EM:
Tempting, but not quite worth the investment for me..

NH:
< Peter Schickele gives a typically tongue in cheek commentary on the life and works of PDQ Bach, with the 'Air on the G string' played by violin, tuba and another instrument of doubtful >provenance (!). >
EM:
Are you certain it is not *Hair on a G-string*?

NH
< Are there too many close-ups, for example, of fingers on strings, or performers faces divorced >from their hands and instruments, and so forth?
Perhaps not, but I personally did become irritated with such visual techniques at times. >

EM:
In that case, perhaps the answere is *yes*?

Michael Emerson wrote (February 19, 2010):
How easy it is on the disembodied internet to affect erudition through micro-criticisms, most of which sound like they derive from the authory not having watched this outstanding (no, not perfect--what is?) DVD nor listened to its commentary very carefully.

Julian Mincham wrote (February 19, 2010):
[To Neil Halliday] Thanks for the review Neil. I haven't seen the film yet, my copy seems to have got lost somewhere in the post.

I gained the impression from yours and other peoples comments ( and the one clip I have seen of a wide range of people commenting) that maybe the focus of the film is less upon Bach and more upon contemporary perception of and reaction to it. Does that make any sense to you? That might go some way to explaining the use of arrangements, the emphasis on the instrumental music etc etc.

But as i say, I have yet to see it for myself.

Evan Cortens wrote (February 19, 2010):
Michael Emerson wrote:
< How easy it is on the disembodied internet to affect erudition through micro-criticisms, most of which sound like they derive from the authory not having watched this outstanding (no, not perfect--what is?) DVD nor listened to its commentary very carefully. >
I'm not sure what this means...

Neil Halliday wrote (February 20, 2010):
Julian Mincahm wrote:
>the focus of the film is less upon Bach and more upon contemporary perception of and reaction to it.<
Correct, Julian.

BTW, some *arrangements* of Bach's music (as opposed to transcription) I didn't mention in my review are the famous D minor Toccata played on 'glass harp', a collection of glasses containing differing quantities of fluid - very clever; and clarinetist Richard Stolzman's Chromatic Fantasia, the last page of which created a movingly haunting, melancholic effect; but I thought I should mention my personal reservations about such performances of Bach's music, letting others decide for themselves.

Neil Halliday wrote (February 20, 2010):
For other viewpoints, here is a link to reviews of 'Bach and friends' from professional reviewers, and others.
http://www.mlfilms.com/productions/bach_project/comments

Ed Myskowski wrote (February 20, 2010):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< For other viewpoints, here is a link to reviews of 'Bach and friends' from professional reviewers, and others. >
Will it go round in circles? One of the reviewers cited is Mike Emerson, from Bach Cantatas and Recordings.

Ed Myskowski wrote (February 20, 2010):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< BTW, some *arrangements* of Bach's music (as opposed to transcription) I didn't mention in my >review are the famous D minor Toccata played on 'glass harp', a collection of glasses containing differing quantities of fluid - very clever >
The D minor Toccata is no longer attributed to Bach? Do you suppose it sounds differently/better, depending on what the fluid in the glasses is? I hop enothing so trivial as water.

NH:
< clarinetist Richard Stolzman's Chromatic Fantasia, the last page of which created a movingly haunting, melancholic effect; but I thought I should mention my personal reservations about such performances of Bach's music, letting others decide for themselves. >
EM:
I wonder if Richard Stoltzman made his own transcription, or perhaps played from the version for violin made by Dan Stepner a few years ago? Dan also transcribed and played the fugue, after which he said he would not pit again. Last year he repeated the fantasia (but not the fugue), and I had the opportunity to ask him about his previous comment, re not playing it again. His response: he would be willing to play the fugue again as well, if someone were willing to compensate him adequately for the required preparation.

So far, no takers.

I repeat my original response to Neils review. Thanks for providing enough detail to spare me the need to see for myself. That comment is not intended to deter anyone else from enjoying the production. I am still trying to remember where I filed my Walter Carlos <Switched on Bach> LP.

Ed Myskowski wrote (February 20, 2010):
Michael Emerson wrote:
< How easy it is on the disembodied internet to affect erudition through micro-criticisms, most of which sound like they derive from the authory not having watched this outstanding (no, not perfect--what is?) DVD nor listened to its commentary very carefully. >
Evan Cortens wrote:
< I'm not sure what this means... >
In the absence of other clarification, let me take a guess. Neil H. provided a review of the DVD which I found very helpful, in making a decision not to take the time and expense to pursue the production at this time. My response to Neil was misinterpreted as a negative review.

Disembodied internet? Your guess is as good as mine. I smack the keyboard with all the power I can muster.

Neil Halliday wrote (February 20, 2010):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
>One of the reviewers cited is Mike Emerson, from Bach Cantatas and Recordings.<
True; however, another review is from one of the performers I forgot to mention - Mike Hawley, who played a transcription of the G major organ fugue BWV 577 on the piano. Such transcriptions are always technically challenging because the pianist, who has to realise the pedal part with left hand octaves, has only one hand free for the other three parts. Mike managed the task with great aplomb, employing the full dynamic range of the piano; the viewer shares his obvious delight expressed through his elated chuckle at the finish.

Notice the review from Vanessa Gould, also a film maker. She extols some aspects of the camera work about which I expressed reservations; nevertheless I think film makers do go overboard with such effects at times.

Finally, I should mention guitarist Manuel Barrueco, who plays a piece I identified as the D minor organ fugue BWV 539, but is listed as 'Fugue violin sonata no.1, transcribed for lute BWV 1000'.

The preface to my Novello organ score says: "the fugue is an arrangement of the fugue which closes the sonata for solo violin in G minor. The composition is so natural and well-suited for the organ in its arranged and transposed form, that is is difficult to imagine it was originally written for violin. Griepenkerl appears to speak of the violin form as being an arrangement of the organ fugue...."
(Reminding us that Bach indulged in some transcriptions and arrangements of his own!)

Needless to say, this lovely work fits the guitar like a glove.

And lest it be taken that my original review was overly negative, let it be said: the 2nd DVD provides a concert of Bach's music by master musicians, in which one obtains absolutely the best seat in the house (being so close to the performers is a real treat), and can also choose one's favourite pieces from those listed in the program. Not a bad deal!

 

Review: Bach and friends: A Two Hour Documentary on Johann Sebastian Bach (A Production Of Michael Lawrence Films)

Julian Mincham wrote (March 2, 2010):
A new film about JS Bach is always going to be keenly anticipated by lovers of music around the world. This has certainly been true of ‘Bach and Friends’, a thoughtfully and affectionately produced two-DVD set by Michael Laurence.

I have to begin by stating that I learnt nothing new about Bach or his music from the film, but to make this a criticism is to miss the point entirely. It is neither a documentary nor an educational treatise; it is a celebration and one that is, in my experience, quite unique. It records the reactions of a large and particularly diverse range of musicians to Bach’s music and through that, it honours it and rejoices at its legacy.

The film begins with a series of comments from the eclectic group of musicians as they strive to put into words what they feel about Bach and his music. I found this a moving experience and one with which I had great accord; how many times have we all struggled to express what is essentially inexpressible when it comes to talking about music? Perhaps the best way to give readers a taste of this is to quote a few of the comments (sometimes slightly paraphrased).

  • There is something about Bach’s music that tells you things about the world that nothing else can.
  • It is impossible to imagine a world in which Bach had not been born.
  • There is such a humanity about Bach; he reaches the heart of human nature.
  • Love of Bach is as close to religion as I get.
  • It is as close as you can get to how a human brain and heart work.

Nor is it just comments of this kind that strike a chord (!). Look at the faces of these musicians as they play the music they love and note the range of backgrounds from which they come. Represented are people who play the piano, cello, violin, clarinet, tuned wine glasses, banjo, mandolin, double bass and ukulele! This film is not for the stuffy purist, but then how many people who are aware of the ways in which Bach himself transposed and transformed his own music, can afford to be snobbishly purist about it? Part of the message of this film is that Bach works well in virtually any medium or circumstance.

Sections of the film deal with difference ways in which Bach is received, studied and analysed in the twenty-first century. There is a focus upon the art of improvisation and neural studies of how the brain reacts when people are involved in this process. Glen Gould is upheld as one of the primary musicians who has influenced the way in which we listen to and receive Bach. There are sound recordings of his playing but, unfortunately, no film shots which, I assume, must have been caused by copyright problems. Eminent composers such as Philip Glass have some very thoughtful things to say about the way in which they feel that Bach must have conceived his music.

I had heard it said that some of the visual shots were gimmicky and distracting but with the single exception of some odd angles of a bass player’s fingers, I did not find this to be the case. Furthermore the producer has got around the perennial problem of people talking over the music (something which most musicians detest) by providing a second disc with the musical examples. All in all, you get quite a bit for your money.

I did, however, note a couple of strange ironies. The film makes a particular point of Bach’s own compositional range as well as the almost unlimited possibilities of media through which the music can be successfully transmitted. How odd, then, to ignore completely the vast repertoire of choral music, the 200-plus cantatas, the passions, oratorios and masses. The repertoire around which the film is based is almost entirely instrumental. I know that you cannot cover everything in a two-hour film but could not we have had one or two singers and conductors voicing their views about this part of Bach’s output? Also ironic it seemed to me, was the thread of spirituality underlying many of the comments, and yet the music which many people believe was probably held to be the most ‘spiritual’ by the composer himself, was disregarded!

Perhaps there might be a further film centering on the 100 plus hours of this music?

Certainly the human side of Bach was not disregarded. There was the rather romantic picture of the family man putting his children to bed and retiring to his ‘closet’ with a glass of brandy to compose the works we cherish to this day! I am not sure if he did the former (there was usually more than one woman in the household charged with such duties) and what we do know of his composing room suggests it was rather larger than a closet. But as a metaphor it serves well; Bach did seem to straddle his domesticand professional worlds quite comfortably.

It was splendid to see Peter Schickele reviving some of the folklore about PDQ Bach (the arch-plagiarist who composed with tracing paper) and Ward Swingle who has been presenting energized Bach with affection for about half a century. I was strongly influenced by both of them throughout the early and middle years of my own career. The fact that Bach had a sense of humour and was a human being like the rest of us, albeit a rather special one, is something that does us no harm to be reminded of. Similarly, the excellent comment that, whilst placing Bach’s recordings in a space capsule to demonstrate to other civilizations the peak of civilisation attained on earth would simply be boasting, is an excellent reminder of the esteem in which the composer is held today.

This is a film for everyman (and woman) who likes, loves, has an interest in or simply wants to try to understand a little more of Bach’s music and the effect it has on people. Despite the couple of reservations I have expressed, it presents us with a wholly positive viewpoint and deserves a wide audience. I do not think that many will be disappointed.

I began by saying that I did not learn anything new about Bach from the film but perhaps that was a little unfair. I certainly did ascertain something about the various ways in which people receive and react to his music. Additionally, hearing it played on say, the mandolin, or the last sighing phrases of the Chromatic Fantasia breathed out of a clarinet, leads you to perceive it differently. And the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, even though Bach almost certainly did not compose it, sounds remarkably effective on wine glasses!

If I may be permitted to end with a personal reflection, when three close family members died in a very short time three years ago, I found that the greatest consolation was listening to, or playing, some Bach every day. There is something about his own experience of unremitting loss than transmits itself into the music and communicates in a wholly positive way at times of personal bereavement. But, like so much that the musicians struggle to put into words in this film, one can only encapsulate a part of the experience. The deepest things that touch us about music, Bach’s or anyone else’s, cannot really be communicated through mere words.

 

Review of Bach and Friends

Uri Golomb wrote (March 20, 2010):
This much-praised documentary left me with mixed feelings. I found it alternately frustrating and illuminating, inspiring and wrong-headed.

Michael Lawrence has interviewed a large number of musicians (performers, composers, scholars, writers, even computer programmers) who share a deep love and admiration for Bach’s music, and believe passionately in its continuing relevance, even necessity, in today’s world. He also recorded them performing – and, in some cases, improvising upon – works by Bach. These performances (many of them included in their complete form on a bonus DVD) are, to my mind, of variable quality. Most of the improvisations left me cold; but many of the performances are insightful and moving (for instance, Joshua Bell’s rendition of the Chaconne from the Partita in D minor for solo violin).

The album’s main selling point, however, remains the documentary. I was somewhat puzzled by its structure. There is no narrator to weave all the strands of the tapestry together (though pianist Mike Hawley’s often perceptive comments, distributed throughout the film, do create a unifying thread). Both the selection of musicians and the order in which they are presented seem haphazard. Some threads worked quite well – for instance, the move from a discussion of Bach’s early life to his art of improvisation. But other transitions – such as the leap from Sid Meier’s CPU Bach program (a decidedly unconvincing attempt to create a computer program that would “compose” music in the style of Bach) to Joshua Bell’s insightful comments on Bach’s solo violin music – seem completely arbitrary.

Nonetheless, an overall message does emerge: Bach’s music is moving and expressive on a profoundly human level, and touches the heart as well as the mind. This counters the still-prevalent images of Bach the mathematician, the austere religious composer, the calculated intellectual. These forbidding images are not wholly unwarranted: Bach’s music is indeed very complex, and there is much to be gained by studying its technical secrets; indeed, for musicians seeking to communicate his music, this study is essential. An exaggerated emphasis on this, however, can scare away non-musicians, who might suspect that they cannot begin to fathom Bach’s music without taking lessons first.

Mandolin player Chris Thile, who includes works by Bach in his gigs alongside completely different music, says that many of his listeners – who are “not classical music fans” – tell him after the concerts that they’re going to seek out more of Bach’s music. It is encouraging to hear him – and others (such as cellist Matt Haimovitz, who has taken to performing Bach’s cello suites in decidedly non-classical venues) – report how Bach’s music reaches into people’s souls regardless of prior musical knowledge and experiences.

But in promoting the idea that Bach can be enjoyed without erudite knowledge, this film seems to imply (unwittingly, I hope) that such knowledge is redundant, or even gets in the way. No one speaks against scholarship or knowledge in this film; but there is often the disquieting feeling that they can be safely ignored – out of sight, out of mind. This is evident in the almost total absence of Bach’s own instruments (other than the organ) from the film. The only time we hear the sound of a harpsichord, for instance, is in a dreadful computer imitation emanating from the aforementioned CPU Bach program. We hear Bach’s music played on guitar, ukulele and mandolin – but not on the lute, the one instrument of this family he might have actually composed for. (We also hear one of Ward Swingle’s vocal arrangements of Bach’s instrumental music – but none of Bach’s genuine vocal works!) It’s as if the harpsichord, for instance, has never been revived, as if the piano and other modern instruments are still self-evident vehicles for Bach’s music, as if there is no difference between performing on Bach’s music on the instruments he wrote for, on modern equivalents, or in arrangements. As I’ll discuss below, it’s not just a matter of instrumental media, either.

There are two extreme positions on this. One is so-called purism, the position that music can only be properly performed and appreciated on the instruments and performance styles which the composer would have recognised. The other – implied by many musicians on this film – is that the music should be performed on whatever instruments, and in whatever style, which help communicate it to the present-day listener. Personally, I believe that Bach’s intentions should be the starting point, that we can gain valuable and irreplaceable insights into his music by inquiring how he would have expected and wanted to hear it (a point of view virtually absent from this film); but I also believe in the viability of arrangements and anachronistic performance styles, including ones which the composer might have scoffed at.

Many musicians interviewed on this film reveal a powerful need for Bach’s music, which compels them to adapt it for their own instruments. The results are often highly convincing – I was amazed, for instance, at how well the Chromatic Fantasy sounds in Richard Stoltzman’s arrangement for solo clarinet. But too many musicians (not, to be sure, Stoltzman himself) try to defend what they’re doing with useless speculation that “Bach would have loved this”; it would have been much more to the point, I feel, if they were to state openly that we have a right to use Bach’s music in a way that suits our cultural needs, regardless of Bach’s approval.

This defiant position was adopted by Glenn Gould, whose musicianship is celebrated in a central portion of this film;1 but most musicians tend to avoid it. They create an image of the composer that suits their needs, and try to convince us that this represents the real composer. Often this is achieved by keeping inconvenient facts at bay. Consider, for instance, this statement by composer Philip Glass:

If you think about the quantity of music that he composed, we can’t really talk about composition in the normal sense. I think basically that what Bach wrote down was what he heard. I don’t think he ever composed anything. I think pieces arrived in his mind complete. There’s no other way to explain the massive amount of music he wrote.

This is set in the context of the image of Bach as a highly intuitive genius, whose achievements cannot and need not be explained yet who was also “a human being like us”, who articulated the best of humanity’s potential but “probably did not know much more about it than we do”. I can understand the appeal of this position, but Glass’s reasoning is based on several errors of fact, which go unchecked throughout the film.

For starters, there is nothing particularly amazing about the quantity of Bach’s music; compared with many of his contemporaries, he was not a prolific composer. Bach towers above his contemporaries in the quality of music he composed, not in quantity. More importantly, we know that Bach did engage in a lot of “composition in the normal sense”. Far from relying on intuition alone, he took the trouble to study all the musical styles prevalent at his time; and far from “writing what he heard”, he often revised and refined his music, and went on doing it even after the piece was supposedly complete.

Glass seems content to make sweeping statements without examining the evidence – without realising, apparently, that the evidence is there to be examined;2 and he is not alone. The attractive yet false image of Bach the intuitive composer also feeds into many interviewees’ views on Bach and improvisation. Bach’s talent and love for improvisation are mentioned abundantly in Bach and Friends; but Bach’s approach to improvisation was much more ambivalent than they imply. One complaint against Bach was that – unlike most of his contemporaries – he insisted upon writing out ornaments; leaving much less freedom to his performers; he certainly did not endorse unfettered improvisation.

It is here that the complete absence of historical performers is particularly telling. For these musicians, understanding the principles of baroque improvisation – and the expressive, rhetorical purpose behind them – is a necessity. But they get no say in Bach and Friends. In this context (and others), I feel that knowledge can be liberating rather than restrictive; many of the improvisations I hear in this film strike me as dull and uninspired, and rather less free than the best historically-informed improvisations, or indeed Bach’s through-composed works!

(Curiously, one of the most imaginative artists interviewed in this film is not actually shown in action. One of Lawrence’s star interviewees is Uri Caine, who created an astonishingly iconoclastic tribute to the Goldberg Variations, involving a lot of original composition. I have reservations about the results – which I have only heard in part – but they are undeniably inventive and innovative. Yet you wouldn’t know any of this from watching the film. Caine talks perceptively and engagingly about Bach’s music, and about the profound influence of Glenn Gould’s performances – but we hear nothing from, or about, his own Bach projects).

For all my criticism, I did enjoy Bach and Friends. It was heartening and inspiring to witness so many fine musicians, from different backgrounds and traditions and with different approaches to Bach, sharing their love of Bach’s music. We get an encouraging glimpse on the varied approaches to promoting Bach’s heritage and bringing it to a wide audience, moving well beyond the traditional remit of the ‘classical music’ concert. Space precludes a detailed description of all the fascinating, informative and sometimes amusing vignettes that this often delightful film includes. And there are many insightful performances and commentaries along the way (in addition to those mentioned above, I could also cite Hilary Hahn’s comparison of Bach and Schoenberg, and the Emerson Quartet’s performances of – and commentaries on – excerpts from the Art of Fugue). Some of the omissions I mentioned might well be rectified in the successor film which is already being planned, I believe – I very much look forward to it.

© Uri Golomb, 2010

1. The film includes interviews with Tim Page, who interviewed Gould several times and posthumously edited his writings; John Q. Walker and Anatoly Larkin from Zenph Studios, who created a re-performance of Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations (http://www.zenph.com/sept25.html); and musicians who found inspiration in Gould’s work, including Bobby McFerrin and Uri Caine.
2. See, for instance, Robert Marshall’s 1972 study of Bach's compositional process.

Steve B. wrote (March 20, 2010):
[To Uri Golomb] Thanks for the detailed review. When I hear a review like this I can't help thinking the producers must be trying to target a wide audience. This necessarily will wind up frustrating many.

Certainly the Bach lovers can still enjoy the perspectives of other musicians, scholars, instrumentalists, composers (your comment on Glass is disturbing but not to me entirely unexpected). I also expect that the better informed will spend a bit of time feeling patronized.

This doesn't mean it can't be entertaining of course, so long as one sits down expecting French pastry and not a meal by Mario Batali ;-)

Thanks,

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 20, 2010):
Uri Golomb wrote:
< The results are often highly convincing - I was amazed, for instance, at how well the Chromatic Fantasy sounds in Richard Stoltzman's arrangement for solo clarinet. >
I asked about this in an earlier post, but without response: several yearws ago Boston violinist Dan Stepner arranged and played the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue for solo violin. Last year he repeated the Fantasy (but not the Fugue) in a solo recital cleverly titled Together Again. I wonder if Richard Stoltzman had access to Dans transcription, or if he started from scratch? Any info included with Bach & Friends?

Elizabeth Schwimmer wrote (March 20, 2010):
[To Uri Golomb] Mike Lawrence sent me his 2 DVD's to be screened in April at the BachFest in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

After watching it, I loved it. Mike told me that one of his main interest in making this documentary was to introduce Bach's music to young people (high school students, for instance).

I loved the documentary, it is simple, easy to watch adn listen and very inspiring.

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 21, 2010):
Elizabeth Schwimmer wrote:
< Mike Lawrence sent me his 2 DVD's to be screened in April at the BachFest in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
After watching it, I loved it. Mike told me that one of his main >interest in making this documentary was to introduce Bach's music to young people (high school students, for instance). >
It would be interesting to hear back about the students responses.

In his review, Uri specifically mentioned Joshua Bells performance of the Chaconne for solo violin. At a couple times in the past year or so we have chatted about his performance of this very piece on the Wahington DC subway (tube) platform, AM rush hour, pretty much ignored by all but kids in tow, on the way to day care.

Kim Patrick Clow wrote (March 21, 2010):
Ed Myskowski wrote:
< In his review, Uri specifically mentioned Joshua Bells performance of the Chaconne for solo violin. At a couple times in the past year or so we have chatted about his performance of this very piece on the Wahington DC subway (tube) platform, AM rush hour, pretty much ignored by all but kids in tow, on the way to day care. >
That response is definitely unique to Washington, D.C. Had Bell played in New York City on a subway platform, he'd easilymade a few hundred dollars.

Elizabeth Schwimmer wrote (March 21, 2010):
[To Ed Myskowski] Yes, I'll let you know how the students react to this documentary.

It will also be shown at Instituto Eduardo Laredo, an arts school in Cochabamba (from Elementary to High School).

By the way, Eduardo Laredo was Jaime Laredo's father who founded this incredible school in the late 1950's.

Ed Myskowski wrote (March 22, 2010):
Elizabeth Schwimmer wrote:
< Yes, I'll let you know how the students react to this documentary. >
I look forward to the the reports. Perhaps it can be followed by a playoff on the Washington, New York, and Boston subways? ;)

Thanks for noting the Eduardo and Jaime Laredo connection, well known to Boston folks.

 

Reviews of Bach and Friends

Uri Golomb wrote (January 10, 2011):
The Michael Lawrence documentary "Bach and Friends" has been the subject of lively discussion on this list (starting from http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Movie/F0020-D.htm), with several reviews (including mine) and responses.

So members might be interested in the three reviews published in the Fall 2010 edition of Bach Notes, the journal of the American Bach Society. You can download it on: http://www.americanbachsociety.org/Newsletters/BachNotes13.9.pdf

 

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