Fascinating Experiment in B Minor
By Marilyn Farwell
How do you like your Bach? In the background with your morning coffee and newspaper? At church? In the concert hall? Or as the soundtrack for a movie?
The Oregon Bach Festival served up three of these options on Sunday when it presented the American premiere of "The Sound of Eternity," a film of 27 independent sections set to coincide with the 27 parts of J.S. Bach's Mass in B Minor.
And on the following day, the festival offered a performance of the same music without the film in the new Great Hall sanctuary at First Baptist Church.
The two performances were musically splendid with fine turns by the soloists, chorus and orchestra under the firm leadership of Helmuth Rilling, but each event provided a different experience for Bach's music.
With the film, Bach's music supported a vaguely modern spiritual yearning that raised more questions than it answered. In the church, Bach's monumental Mass became what Bach intended: an affirmation of his Christian faith.
Predictably, the second night was more satisfying musically, but the first event was more intellectually stimulating. In fact, it was the most stimulating - if also controversial - event of this year's festival.
What happens to Bach's music when it takes a back seat to a modern film that, for the most part, translates the music into imagery unrelated to Christianity? The film's creator, Bastian Cleve, interprets Bach's music as a universal yearning for life's freedom and meaning. He provides no single narrative, unless it is a vague sense of movement from birth to death. The heavens that Bach associated with God become the vast cosmos of modern astronomy, where astronauts walk with angels and planets dance.
As the choir begins with the dark "Kyrie," the images of the cosmos are juxtaposed to Pieter Bruegel's digitally manipulated paintings. When the choir sings the joyful "Sanctus," black-and-white pictures of nature are gradually sanctified by color. Whimsical images of a dancing snowflake timed to a flute's solo exist along with ironic images of war and war's wounded syn- chronized to the bass soloist's declaration of "one holy apostolic church." In perhaps the most audacious sequence, break dancers display their athletic movements to Bach's joyful music declaring Christ's resurrection.
In this context, Bach's music provides an hypnotic and even secular background. The agonizing, descending motif in the "Agnus Dei," for example, creates the emotional palette appropriate to Cleve's various images of death. The often steady beat of the continuo instruments adds to the sense of yearning central to the film.
The challenge in a live performance is to keep these elements in sync, which for the most part Rilling was able to do. Whether one knew the untranslated Latin text or not, this multimedia event demanded that one ask questions about aesthetic and spiritual meaning at every turn.
On the second evening, Thomas Somerville's introductory words on Bach's Christian intentions set a decidedly religious tone for the audience. Musically, this performance was more expressive, the tempos more varied, the range of the soloists more dramatic and engaged.
If Rilling had to gauge his tempos to the film on the previous night, he could now release all the interpretative details for which he is famous.
This juxtaposition of two different approaches to Bach was a fascinating experiment by a festival noted more for the traditional than the modern.
Marilyn Farwell is a professor emerita of English at the University of Oregon.