"My greatest love is Bach," says Baltimore filmmaker Michael Lawrence. "He has driven my life. But there hasn't been a decent film made on Bach."
Lawrence plans to change that.
Filming is set to start next month on a project that will focus not on the biographical side of Johann Sebastian Bach but rather on the power and genius of his music and the artists who are drawn to it.
"Bach films are either stuffy, period-looking things, or they just involve going around Germany to places where he lived," Lawrence says. "I'm dealing with people who have a very strong personal connection to Bach. I'll be getting them to talk about Bach. The idea is to let the audience into the experience."
Lawrence expects to shoot in Baltimore and other locations. He approached an impressive and wide-ranging lineup of Bach-inspired musicians to be in the film, including pianists Leon Fleisher and Joao Carlos Martins; violinist Hilary Hahn; classical/bluegrass/jazz artists Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer; jazz pianist Dave Brubeck; and composer/humorist Peter Schickele (creator of the immortal, imaginary P.D.Q. Bach).
"To my surprise, they're all interested in doing the thing," the filmmaker says. "I've joked that it's going to have to be 10 hours long."
Lawrence envisions a two-disc DVD product when he's finished - the film, which will blend conversation and music, and an extra all-music disc.
The stocky, bushy-bearded, Indiana-born Lawrence, 62, has been making music-related films for the past several years.
Recent releases include Aaron Shearer: A Life with the Guitar, devoted to one of the most influential teachers of classical guitar (Lawrence studied guitar with Shearer at the Peabody Institute, from which he graduated in 1970).
Before picking up a camera, Lawrence composed scores for several films, among them Julian Krainin's Emmy-winning 1969 documentary The Other Americans.
Lawrence once had a studio in downtown Baltimore but now works mostly out of a room in the Dundalk house where he and his wife live.
The Bach film will mark Lawrence's first experience with the high-definition format. "It's a little scary," he says. "I have to learn a whole new technology, a new camera, a new editing system."
The first filming session will be in August at Peabody with organist Felix Hell. "I have to tell you I always thought of organ music as a big pile of mush," Lawrence says, "but I realized it was so important to Bach's life, so we have to have it in the film."
Lawrence plans to intersperse footage of Hell's playing with shots of the insides of the instrument. "You'll never have seen the organ as you will in this movie," he says.
Musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen will be filmed playing Bach in his New York apartment. A variety of other locations will be used as the project progresses.
"One thing I don't worry about is making a good film," Lawrence says. "With the quality of these musicians, it will be a good film. But I may well have to pay for it myself."
As Lawrence is the first to admit, that won't be easy.
"I never made much money as a filmmaker," he says. "I've got about $6,000 in the bank for this film ... $75,000 is all I need. I work cheap. It would be good for a corporation to have their name on the film. People love Bach all over the world."