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Bach and Friends

Distributed by Michael Lawrence Films, 6708 Danville Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21222
Produced by Michael R. Lawrence
Directed by Michael R. Lawrence
DVD, color, 206 min., 2 discs, Subtitles: English, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese
Sr. High - Adult

Reviewed by Bonnie Jo Dopp, Librarian Emerita, University of Maryland

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
Date Entered: 3/29/2010

Filmed in people’s homes, a night club, a nursing home, a hospital, music studios, several churches, and even a couple of concert halls, this two-hour exploration of what some of the music of J. S. Bach means to today’s musicians and audiences covers a lot of territory. It leaves out a lot, too: large instrumental ensembles and choruses.

However, some of Bach’s music for large ensembles appears in another guise. Vocalist Bobby McFerrin transforms a bit of a violin concerto into a mouth-popping ditty and the Swingle Singers similarly vocalize part of an orchestra suite. The famous chorale, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, from one of Bach’s cantatas is combined with Amazing Grace by pianist-improviser John Bayless. In fact, many of the Baroque master’s compositions appear in transcription here: for ukulele, glass harp, banjo, mandolin, clarinet, grand piano, and guitar. Some organ and string works are heard on their own instruments, but today’s violins and cellos sound quite different from the ones Bach heard, so do not turn to this program for ‘authentic’ or ‘early music’ renditions. There is even music from two Bachs that Johann Sebastian never knew: CPU Bach (a computer program) and PDQ Bach (AKA Peter Schickele), who contribute technology and comic relief to the film.

All the music is well played and the performers (young, old, internationally famous, hardly known) give spoken testimony regarding how Bach’s work affects them. One lovely aspect of the program is that entire sections of works are heard – sometimes under the narration, but still audible. Violinist Joshua Bell plays the entire Chaconne from the second Violin partita (BWV 1004), one of the works commuters in Washington, DC were treated to three years ago as they rushed by him at a subway station on their way to work. Other performers and speakers lending their talents are clarinetist Richard Stolzman, scholar Christoph Wolff, composer Philip Glass, music critic Tim Page, and violinist Hilary Hahn, along with many other musicians.

For anyone with an interest in Bach’s music, the two hours fly by, in part owing to a lively mixture of camera angles providing very close views (sometimes from below) of pianists’ hands, violinists’ bows, and an organist’s feet. A segment on music and the brain adds a touch of science to the mix. Some chapters of the main disc feature scholars and composers giving background commentary on Bach’s life and music. Bach’s fascination with numbers is discussed and the film ends with a lovely visual demonstration of fractals while the Emerson String Quartet plays a segment of “Art of Fugue.” Disc 1 ‘extras’ are indexed scenes of just musical performances as seen in the film, with voice-over narrations. Disc 2, another hour and a half long, contains eighteen full performances of some of the music shown in the film together with other pieces, all with no narration. They are indexed by performer and by title.

The film began life three years ago under the name “The Bach Project.” Background and promotional information is available on the Michael Lawrence Films web site but no complete list of credits is there. There was no program booklet provided with the review set I examined.

At three and a half hours, this two-disc program gives educators much to choose from when seeking supplemental material for assignments on Bach, improvisation, or music appreciation. Large public libraries should consider this for collections where other classical composers DVDs have circulated well.