Bach ‘n’ roll marathon

Annual event celebrates composer’s birthday with 29 hours of music

Johann Sebastian Bach and Bill Haley might seem to have little in common, other than the fact that both were musicians.

However, for 29 hours, Friday and Saturday, the genres of these two musical pioneers — and others — will be combined for the 17th annual Bach Around the Clock at Trinity Episcopal Church.

The event was the brainchild of Trinity’s resident organist and musical director Albinas Prizgintas with plenty of hands-on support from his French-born wife, Manon.

Prizgintas grew up in a household of classical musicians and is classically trained himself, but his eclectic tastes range from Iron Butterfly to “Madame Butterfly.”

He can play the works of hundreds of artists and composers — especially Bach — perched comfortably behind Trinity’s 5,000-pipe organ.

The musical marathon is held every year on or around Bach’s birthday, March 21. Musicians and other performing artists, primarily from New Orleans, are carefully slotted into the schedule, which Manon usually hasn’t finalized until the Friday morning of the event’s kickoff. As many as 300 artists and other participants — including yoga instructors — may appear onstage.

Born to Lithuanian parents in Germany, Prizgintas emigrated to the United States with them when he was a year and a half old. Both parents were organists.

“I was literally born into it,” he said. “I learned to play organ at a very young age. My mother was a big lover of Bach’s music. She claimed it had many healing properties, and I developed an affinity for it myself.”

Prizgintas grew up in Bound Brook, N.J., and played the church circuit in New York City for many years. He arrived in New Orleans from Tucson, Ariz., about 25 years ago. Since his arrival at Trinity, he has initiated many musical outreach programs aimed at bringing new forms of entertainment to the community, and not just classical music. He’d played in several rock bands, and his tastes had long since expanded beyond his Juilliard classical degrees.

Bach Around the Clock is an outgrowth of Prizgintas’ musical mission. He often practiced late at night in the church.

“Manon and I noticed how the church can be a very special place late at night. I wanted other people to have the opportunity to be a part of what we were experiencing in a very special, meditative environment with organ music playing.”

Originally, Prizgintas started out solo, playing exclusively Bach compositions. The first year he played from midnight to 6 a.m., without a break. After that grueling experience, he knew he couldn’t continue doing it alone. Other musicians who heard him asked if they could participate, and not all of them wanted to do Bach.

“One person asked if he could play a Mozart sonata, so I said OK,” Prizgintas said. “Then someone else wanted to play blues songs by Professor Longhair, and I said OK. So we started including a wide variety of music: Visiting ensembles with their own repertoire and so on. It became, rather than a ‘Bach-a-thon,’ an all-night party celebrating Bach’s birthday with music. I thought that was appropriate because Bach had so much influence on a variety of musical forms that followed, whether it be jazz or other forms.”

Through the years, Bach Around the Clock has become an integral part of the city’s cultural legacy. Among the many participants have been three members of the musical Marsalis family: Ellis, Jason and Delfeayo.

The event is free. Hundreds of music fans come and go, and many stay for the whole thing, camping out with sleeping bags and waking up to coffee and refreshments.

“We are constantly energized by the culture here in New Orleans. This is our way of giving something back,” Prizgintas said.