• Ben Erickson

Max and Me

Max and Me is an animated feature from Mexican production company Dos Corazones Films that beautifully and unapologetically shares the message of Christian love and faith with the hearkening story of Polish friar Maximilian Kolbe who, during World War II, volunteered to die in place of a stranger at Auschwitz. As a political and spiritual leader he became the de facto priest within the camp, and for his selfless acts he was posthumously canonized by Pope John Paul II and declared a Martyr of Charity. The score for Max and Me was composed by American Mark McKenzie, student of Pierre Boulez, Morten Lauridsen, and Witold Lutoslawski, and today one of the most formidable musical voices in Hollywood. His labours have borne staggeringly exquisite and intimate compositions that tell stories all their own. In 2011 his work on the Dos Corazones production El Gran Melagro ("The Greatest Miracle") was nominated in two categories by the International Film Music Critics Association (IFMCA): Film Score of the Year and Best Original Score for an Animated Film. The ensemble for Max and Me consisted of 135 musicians congregating in London's Abbey Road Studio, joined by London Voices and the Libera boys choir to deliver the greatest sermon of the year. Led by conductor Gordon Johnson and virtuosic violin soloist Joshua Bell the orchestra soars through heaven's pastures, breathing new life into everything it touches. Bell allows his soul to move through each note and carry each phrase with earnest humility. His performance in the opening cue "I Am" reaches out with painstaking expression to introduce one of the principle melodic ideas of the score, given renewed ardor late in its airing with an embellished neighbour figure. "Two Crowns Vision" reveals the main theme for Max and Me, and it was in its conception that McKenzie wrote with vital purpose. Lento strings enter to establish the major tonality, with the bottom register nurturing a tonic pedal. The initial phrase of the melody revolves around a tonic triad, pivoting to the fourth scale degree as the harmony shifts and repeating the gesture through the next two bars. The second gesture to complete the melody is a repeated ascending figure supported by changing harmonies. It arrives to a half cadence abound with suspensions, where the tonic pedal finally gives way to the dominant before experiencing a thematic transformation into a new key. The purity of the angelic choral entry and the blossoming orchestration as the theme reaches its peak creates a deeply profound experience for the listener that one could be forgiven in thinking is God's unconditional love.

Stories of hardship and woe have often been the circumstances of great art. And Christianity has been a faith of great music. I do not believe in God, but it was something I will never forget when in a vocal Masterclass wherein I prepared "For the Mountains Shall Depart" from Mendelssohn's Elijah, my friend Jonathon Stitt -- a student observer from the audience -- asked Professor Robert MacLaren, "what if he doesn't believe?" We had been discussing the piece from the perspective of Elijah, who up until that point in the oratorio had been greatly discouraged from the trials and tribulations of his Lord, and Robert replied, "in that moment he does." Of course this was not meant to suggest I had in any way converted to Christianity. All he really meant was that this was the commitment you have to perform with if you ever hope to do justice to such a monumental story. I can say with the utmost assurance that that commitment to know God is everywhere present in this score. McKenzie and the performers who helped realize this music have moved beyond the realm of skepticism with a deep trust in one another and in their work. Guitarist John Parricelli reveals the truth that peace is a journey, pianist Dave Arch breathes in flowing compassion from the oceans of creation, and boy soprano Issac London cleans our ears with his sublime voice. A prayer to make Lauridsen proud protects fragile souls on the text "dona nobis pacem" ("Prayer for Peace"), and even the darker turns of the score exhibit a hope undeserving of our ears with agonizing refrains from vocalist Clara Sanabras. Helen Keen on a wooden recorder, much in keeping with Bach's use of the flute, channels the holy spirit, and together the ensemble exhibits the quiet strength of faith. I honestly believe McKenzie's music for Max and Me was a sincere effort to help create a better world than the one we live in. When I first heard it I was brought to tears with the words "thank you" on my lips, at a loss for anything else to say. And the more I hear it the more I believe it is a truly theophanic work. I cannot wait until the film is released. It has an important message to tell. The score is dedicated to the memory of choral master Robert Salvatore Ruberto (1932-2016).