Schiff sees no particular irony, however, in a secular Jewish musician leading a protest against anti-Semitism while immersing himself in the liturgy of the Passion. "The important thing about the message of Bach's music is the love of mankind in the noblest sense. It's not about Christianity, it's about people. Everyone in the 'St. Matthew' Passion is a Jew, except for the Romans: Jesus is a Jew, Judas is a Jew, the Evangelist is a Jew. And you have these basic concepts, like love and hate and the manipulation of the masses. The whole psychology is so clearly delineated by Bach. If you turn away from this and say it's anti-Semitic, you miss the whole point."
Schiff says that conducting the "St. Matthew" Passion, with its epic, theatrical sweep, has clarified for him the spiritual force of Bach's instrumental music. Schiff slips onto the bench in front of the rented Steinway that fills the sitting room of his hotel suite and plays, first an apocalyptic episode from the "St. Matthew" Passion ("Open your fiery pit, o hell," the chorus shouts), then the French Overture in B Minor for solo keyboard. The music is startlingly similar: same tempo, same fury, same contour, same shuddering counterpoint.
"I never saw that piece as something sacred before," he says. "But now it grows in dimensions. You have the confidence to play it very dramatically." There is a trace of trumpet in his piano tone, and suddenly the cozy, golden sconce of a room seems to have grown much too small to contain such expansive fervor.
ANDRAS SCHIFF, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Dates: Monday, 8 p.m. Prices: $65. (Sold out) Phone: (949) 553-2422. Also: Thursday, 8 p.m., and Sunday, 2:30 p.m., at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A., $10-$70. Also: Friday, 8 p.m. at Copley Symphony Hall, San Diego, $25-$125, (858) 459-3728.