An online documentary on German composer Johann Sebastian Bach, available on the Bachfest Malaysia Youtube channel, has been making its rounds among classical music fans starved of live concerts during these pandemic times.
Encountering Bach, which has a runtime of 130 minutes, brings viewers on a journey around important Bach-landmarks in Germany, while discovering his life stories and music.
The documentary is available in both English and Mandarin, and is hosted by Bachfest Malaysia founder David Chin, and co-hosted by Bachfest Leipzig artistic director and Bach-Archiv Leipzig musicologist Michael Maul and Bach-Archiv Leipzig musicologist and researcher Manuel Baerwald.
“The idea of making a film on the life and music of Bach in my mother tongue, Mandarin, has been on my mind for a while, as very few books have been written in Chinese about the composer, let alone a film. We decided to release this film in two languages with the hope of reaching as many people as possible," says Chin, 35.
"As a conductor and music scholar, I have always been finding ways to contribute what I can to my fellow Malaysians and the global community, ” he adds.
He recalls how a chance meeting with Maul at the Bachfest Leipzig in the summer of 2018, sowed the seeds for this project.
When Chin was presented with an opportunity to view several of Bach’s original manuscripts, including cantata No.62 and the famous "Entwurff" letter at the Bach-Archiv’s library in Leipzig, Germany, the following year, a lightbulb went off in his head.
This was a story waiting to be told.
After a flurry of emails and phone calls after he returned home, he was once again on a plane headed for Germany to start work on the documentary.
“It was not very much time between when we decided to do this project (mid-August 2019) to when we began filming in Germany (early September 2019). I came up with the outline within a few days, and read many, many books in a very short time.
"Of course, I have done much research on Bach and performed many of his works in past years, but still, there is so much to learn about him, ” he says.
Chin was based in the US for 15 years before moving back to Malaysia. He is now based in Kuala Lumpur.
In putting together this documentary during the lockdown months, he muses that has learned so much more about Bach.
“I truly enjoyed every aspect of making this film. One of the things which I am most grateful for is the people whom I have met in the making of this project. I got the ‘front-row-seat’ by having the directors of the museums give me an exclusive VIP tour while we filmed, and this is not a privilege that anyone can have. I learned a lot from the best people in their fields, ” he says.
Encountering Bach includes interviews with 15 prominent scholars and musicians and features musical performance footage by musicians from Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Germany, Switzerland and the United States.
This project, Chin says, would not have been possible without videographer and violinist Moses Lim, who lugged his equipment to Germany, filmed from morning to evening for consecutive 12 days, then worked on the editing.
In total, it took 15 months to complete, with nine short episodes on different topics made available in the year leading up to the full-length documentary premiere last month.
“I tried to use common language in the film so that people who are not musicians would have an idea of what I am talking about. At the same time, I also covered topics which many musicians normally are not exposed to, so they have an opportunity to be more well-informed through the enjoyable format of a film," he concludes.
Later in the year, Chin will conduct Beethoven’s ‘Missa Solemnis’ concert tour in Sabah and Sarawak. This year’s schedule includes a Bach's cantata concert for the Malaysia Bach Festival Singers and Orchestra, an inaugural concert for the new Mendelssohnchor Malaysia and Bach's ‘Christmas Oratorio’.
Chin has been invited to conduct at Carnegie Hall in New York, and the St Thomas Church in Leipzig, in 2022.