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Off page and off stage

Christoph Bull's concert is big on effects and improvisation. For a time, he can't be seen.

December 01, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Christoph Bull is a happy organist. And a heavy organist. He clearly takes inspiration from Virgil Fox, who, with twinkle in eye, brought Bach to San Francisco's Fillmore in the '60s, psychedelic light show and all, with his "Heavy Organ."

Thursday night for UCLA Live in Royce Hall, Bull offered the Bach, the lights and the showmanship, even if his main selling point was to improvise, hidden away under the stage, to a silent film, "Berlin: Symphony of Great City." For the program's first half -- a collection of short German pieces -- the young German musician, who is UCLA's organist, emphasized informality when he appeared in jeans and shirttails.

He changed to a UCLA white T-shirt and shiny red pants for the film and rode the keyboard as a lift lowered him out of sight. He rose again at evening's end as the film faded, brightly spotlighted and building to an ear-shattering final chord.

Still, the organ is a harder sell today than it was in Fox's pop-fame heyday and the days of Deep Purple. By only the second work of Thursday's program, Bach's Prelude and Fugue in G, BWV 541, people had begun heading for the exit signs, apparently taken aback that an organ recital would precede the screening of a rare and important 1927 film.

In the cineastes' defense, Bull's first half could be a tad trying, with its tidbits of early and late Baroque, Mendelssohn, Rheinberger and Brahms creating an organ potpourri. Enjott Schneider's Toccata "Schlafes Bruder," part of the soundtrack for a 1995 film, "Brother of Sleep," was heavy-handed organ. Bull's own arrangements of German folk songs proved a sweet suite, a sugary confection.

Bull's delight in big effects sometimes led him to blur passages on his excited way to climaxes. Oddly enough, though, he was very effective in a late Brahms chorale prelude, which he played with simple beauty and a refreshing lack of bathos, despite a stage bathed in -- what else? -- deep purple.

For the film, Bull offered chugging accompaniment perfectly suitable for Walther Ruttmann's experiments in quick cuts and his fascination with the machine age. And here Bull contributed significantly to the mesmerizing depiction of a day in the life of a city.

A train enters a station in the wee hours. The city sleeps. It awakes. Industrious workers flood outdoors, and factories come to life. Next up: school and commerce. Traffic clogs the streets; shoppers fill the sidewalks. People jostle, a couple of pedestrians get into a fight. Wind blows and rain falls. A roller-coaster ride prefigures a suicide jump into the Spree. At night, we peek into a symphony concert, the theater, the ballet and a cabaret.

Other than by using experimental cinematic techniques, Ruttmann pays little attention to the artistic, philosophical, political and scientific hothouse of Golden Age Berlin. He, instead, intended a celebration of a city's surface, the movement of masses, offered with minimal political or social context.

But Bull was in his element, milking the organ's richly rumbling low notes and toying with themes supplied by Bach and Franck. Children generally played in waltz time. And all those machines got their exhilarating rhythmic groove.

The what-you-hear-is-what-you-see approach meant no irony, no allusion to the Berlin of Brecht and Weill, of Schoenberg and Hindemith, no commentary track, so to speak, exploring Berlin's Expressionist and decadent musical side. But 69 minutes of dramatically effective improvisation was no small accomplishment, and my guess is that Bull provided exactly what Ruttmann would have wanted.


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