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Reviewed by:
  • Swinging Bach: Bobby McFerrin and Guests
  • Jim Farrington
Swinging Bach: Bobby McFerrin and Guests. DVD. Presented by Nina Ruge and Alan Bangs. With Bobby McFerrin, Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony, Jacques Loussier Trio, King’s Singers, German Brass, Ji´ri Stivin and Collegium Quodlibet, Turtle Island String Quartet, Quintessence Saxophone Quintet, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and Christian Gansch. Leipzig, Germany: EuroArts Music International, 2000. 2050406. $19.99.

Crossover. The very word strikes a range of emotions from disgust to greed to benign satisfaction to curiosity and back to horror on the part of the music-buying public. Readers will recognize where they fit into this continuum. Those who look down their noses at music that takes from a variety of traditions and makes something else neglect centuries of musicians and composers doing the same thing. Today's so-called "crossover" music (which can trace its history back to any vernacular musician appropriating melodies by composers of art-with-a-capital-A music) is enjoyed by millions who simply enjoy music, and yet is reviled by those for whom classical, jazz, or a particular kind of ethnic music is their primary if not sole musical pleasure.

The concert under consideration here was held in Leipzig in 2000, part of the "24 Hour Bach" celebrations commemorating the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach's death. This was an outdoor concert in the Marketplatz using several stages, plus a balcony for the remarkable German Brass. Thousands of appreciative people crowded the plaza despite rain throughout much of the evening, providing a palpable energy. Unfortunately the weather seemed to wreak havoc with some of the intonation, particularly that of the Quintessence Saxophone Quintet. Not everything on the concert was of the crossover variety, but everything was based at least in part on the music of Bach, who of course spent the last twenty-seven years of his life in Leipzig. Production qualities throughout are very high, with two surround sound options (Dolby Digital and DTS), and subtitles in three languages. The two hosts, who speak at times in both English and German, introduce most of the performers and works, and attempt to explain the musical context that the concert is trying to capture, but ultimately are superfluous.

The packaging and marketing of this disc would lead one to believe that Bobby McFerrin is the central performer. While he may be the most recognized name, he is present on only four segments. Nevertheless, McFerrin steals the show with his remarkable audience participation rendition of "Ave Maria," during which he sings the moving Bach accompaniment while the audience sings the soaring Gounod vocal line. Another high point is the King's Singers lone contribution to the video, "Deconstructing Johann," showing all the wit, panache, and remarkable vocalizing for which the ensemble is famous (and what may be the best use I've seen of an otherwise corny ringtone at the opportune moment).

With such a large number of performers and wide variety of styles, some unevenness is inevitable. For example, flutist Jiři Stivin's performance of two movements from the Orchestral Suite, BWV 1067 with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig are [End Page 681] almost painful to hear, such is the stylistic disconnect between ensemble and soloist; once he walks to the adjacent stage midway through the "Badinerie" to finish that movement with his jazz group, all is well. Something would have been missing had Jacques Loussier not been present. In the late 1950s, his Play Bach Trio promoted this kind of crossover music specifically with Bach's works in mind, selling millions of copies. Critics were not kind at the time, and the last several decades have not improved their opinion of the genre.

Jim Farrington
Eastman School of Music


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